No clipping this Butterfly's wings
This 2018 M. Butterfly production is exquisitely staged, rising up to the challenge of David Henry Hwang's powerful material
Patricia Chong | Sep 14 2018
David Henry Hwang’s controversial M. Butterfly begins in a prison. Rene Gallimard, played by a sardonic Olivier Borten, is pulling on a robe. He’s a celebrity—you know, the mean-spirited toast of cities around the world. And it’s not because he, a French diplomat stationed in China, was convicted for treason. No, we’re here for the juicier bit: the 20-year affair he had with a woman who was actually a man.
At first glance, we don’t blame him for not being able to tell. RS Francisco’s Song Liling is enchanting when he first appears onstage in an exquisite red kimono, playing the eponymous role of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as she kills herself when her white lover abandons her.
“Beautiful!” declares Gallimard. For the audience, however, the game is up as soon as Song speaks. But Gallimard chooses not to see what slowly become more obvious, despite his new mistress throwing shade left and right. “It's one of your favorite fantasies isn’t it?” asks Song after shushing him at least ten times, to the audience’s delight. “The submissive oriental woman and the cruel white man.”
We watch the fire of that fantasy fed, with Francisco’s Song masterfully playing into a stereotype. A woman in a kimono (played by Rica Nepomuceno) sings Puccini again and again as the roles are slowly reversed, with Song soon wresting the reins in the relationship—in a pivotal scene wearing a night gown in yellow, the color of royalty in China. Eric Pineda’s exquisite costumes, John Batalla’s boldly colored lighting, and the clever use of huge folding fans are part of the quiet shift in power.
Ohm David’s set design makes the whole thing look like something out of a painting, with walls and structures made up of familiar textures and forms—crumpled paper, blurry cherry blossoms, and Japanese screens—reduced to mere impressions. You’re not quite sure what’s real and what’s happening in Gallimard’s head, as M. Butterfly explores not only the themes of gender, sex, and race, but of what we perceive to be the truth. It’s perhaps even more fitting, hard-hitting now in our time of alternative facts and trolls than when the play first opened in New York in the 1980s.
Gallimard refuses to see beyond what he believes, even years later. Not when Song strips off his makeup and kimono onstage and emerges a man rocking Jean Paul Gaultier. Not when the docile mistress turns out to be a communist spy taking the government secrets Gallimard handles and feeding them back to the Chinese government. “I am a man who loved a woman created by a man,” Gallimard says. “Everything else falls short.”
He chooses the fantasy, and M. Butterfly’s wild but inevitable end takes place where the play begins: in a prison.
M. Butterfly runs up to the 30th of September at the Globe Auditorium, Maybank Performing Arts Center, Bonifacio Global City