Produced by: City Lights
Featuring: Christina Chu, Jessica Do, Laura Espino, April Green, Lee-Ron, N. Louie, Keith C. Marshall, Kit Wildeer
Directed by: Jeffrey Bracco
Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission
When: March 19 through April 19, 2015
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose, California
Tickets: $17-$35 (discounts available). Visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200
in Hwang's 'M.Butterfly'
of Tony Award-winning play
At the beginning of dialogue for "M. Butterfly" at City Lights in San Jose, as Kit Wilder as René Gallimard is telling his pathetic tale from prison, as we see the opera "Madame Butterfly" underway in the shadows of memory and having never seen or read David Henry Hwang's play myself I was questioning the casting of N. Louie as Song Butterfly.
Louie is very clearly a man, even dressed in a kimono and speaking in a sultry, sort of feminine voice.
It's those broad shoulders, at the very least. But after a while, the light shone for me (Duh!): The audience is supposed to know that Butterfly is a man.
It's only René who is to be fooled, and that he is fooled is the meat of this brilliant, deeply layered play, which explores the need of many to be fooled, and how that works with chauvinism.
René, a French diplomat in Peking, wants to believe Butterfly is not just any woman, but the one who fits his idea of what he wants in a "submissive Oriental woman."
And Butterfly, with his/her own agenda, becomes that woman for him. For decades.
National chauvinism is at work here, too. René and his boss, Keith C. Marshal as Toulon (he also plays René's friend from school, Marc, and the judge in René's trial) both need to think that France is superior to Vietnam and to the United States and to China.
And the Chinese believe they are superior to all of the above. We already know the Americans are sure of their superiority.
Those chauvinistic beliefs drive this play, which sees René rising in the French diplomatic corps, breaking the heart of his wife (a fine turn by April Green), having other affairs, but continuing in his long love affair with Song Liling, along the way sharing low-level French secrets with her.
Till he is found out, tried and imprisoned for treason. And is forced to see the truth of Song Liling's gender.
Wilder, who has a lot of dialogue to deliver in this play which is essentially René recounting his life looks the part of a French diplomat in the tropics who'd had social and sexual confusion in high school. A brush of white hair, black-rimmed glasses that serve many purposes in delivering emphasis. Wilder does a fine job taking René through an examination of his character.
Louie has a very weird character arc, having to go from a performer in the all-male Peking Opera (that all-male thing being something René supposedly didn't know about) to being a spy for Chairman Mao's China to having to force the Frenchman he may have actually loved to see what he truly is.
I'm not sure there is any dead time in this play. Get there early to watch kurogo dancers, Jessica Do and Lee-Ron, who are very slowly moving on stage when the doors are open, a good 30 minutes before the show begins. Kurogo dancers are a form borrowed from Kabuki, black-clad stage assistants. Do and Lee-Ron do in fact deliver set pieces and props to the stage, but before the show proper begins, they also do something like a very slow story ballet. It's very nice to watch. Kristin Kusanovich does a fine job with choreography throughout the show.
I left the auditorium during intermission, so am not sure what happened on stage then, but during the second act there is a "five-minute pause" that most audience member took as an actual break from the action, which it is not. Something quite fascinating happens on stage during that time.
Christina Chu plays Suzuki Chu-Fang and Comrade Chin, and is quite good in all three roles, with lots of swagger and fear to juggle.
Laura Espino is the Girl in the Magazine and Renée, a young woman with whom René has an affair. She is beautifully nude in both roles, and delivers some hilarious dialogue about penises in the Renée role. Her nudity helps prepare us for the key nudity of the show, which happens toward the end of the play.
Green has a lot of emotion to deliver in short bits, and is outstanding with it. Marshall is good in all three of his roles, all of which help to us understand René.
Director Jeffrey Bracco keeps the show moving fluidly, even with urgency. Anna Chase's costumes are excellent in all regards. Ron Gasparinetti's sets, involving sliding Asian paper walls seem simple but accomplish a lot, making for fluid changes of scenery and for useful shadow play. Nick Kumamoto did a fine job with lighting and projection design.
Email John Orr at email@example.com