Chinese gender checkers
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The exotic fantasies that turned "The Mysterious East" into a familiar catchphrase have rapidly evaporated in the relatively brief time since M. Butterfly played to its first Broadway audiences in 1988. Of course, they were already of considerably less mystery by this point, and props go to Richard Nixon for being a master un-magician, but when current debates hinge on which is the most popular search engine among the Chinese and the amount of U.S. debt they own, lotus blossoms have left the hothouse.
Even when it was new, M. Butterfly was already a look back into a cultural legacy when Puccini's Madama Butterfly provided a template for fantasizing Westerners. Yes, Butterfly was a Japanese rather than Chinese character, but that was a blurry distinction as far as many outsiders where concerned. That's certainly the case with Rene Gallimard, the central character in David Henry Hwang's play that is receiving an estimable, intimate production by the Custom Made Theatre Company.
Gallimard was Hwang's fictionalized rendering of the real-life Bernard Boursicot, a low-level French diplomat stationed in Beijing in the 1960s. While Hwang has amped the story to accommodate broad cultural and political commentaries, M. Boursicot's actual story came already outfitted for a strange-but-true drama. In life as well as in the play, the French diplomat for two decades carried on an affair with, and passed state secrets to, a crossdressing Chinese opera singer whom he believed to be a woman.
At least, this is what he claimed to be true at his treason trial, and Hwang has provocatively imagined how such a self-deception could be possible by examining gender roles both in worldwide terms and in a specific East-West dynamic. Our socially awkward hero, a variation on the 40-year-old virgin, needs an archetypically submissive woman – think Cio-Cio San in the Puccini opera – to express his masculinity.
At the Gough Street Playhouse (formerly the Next Stage), director Stuart Bousel has effectively used the space to economically present Hwang's play of contemporary narrations, sweeping flashbacks, and extended reveries. With audiences sitting on three sides of the performing area, Bousel literally brings the play to the audience. There's a minimum of fuss about the production in technical terms, but the play and its messages still come strongly to life.
Considerable credit must go to Rik Lopes as Gallimard and Sean Fenton as Song Liling. As written, Gallimard can be something of a milquetoast cipher, but Lopes gives the character ample personality, and if it's not exactly a sympathetic personality, it is sufficiently and recognizably human. In the role of his unlikely and duplicitous paramour, Fenton suggests a harsh femininity that both satisfies and rules Gallimard, and his late-in-the-play transformation into a male persona is gripping. Versatile supporting work is provided by Kai Morrison, Kira Shaw, Karen Offereins, Xanadu Bruggers, and Paul Stout in a variety of roles.
Playwright Hwang is not exactly a concise writer, and points can feel repeated and scenes stretched further than they should be. But Custom Made has tackled this ambitious script with a confidence that is well-earned.
M. Butterfly will run at the Gough Street Playhouse through April 16. Tickets are $28, available at www.custommade.org.