On the most obvious level, David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," which opened at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre last night, is about the differences between East and West, men and women, reality and fantasy.
But mostly, it is about the perils of fantasy. The true story on which "M. Butterfly" is based concerned a 20-year love affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer, who turned out not only to be a Communist spy, but a man. The crux of this fascinating Tony Award-winning play isn't how easily we can be deceived by others, but how easily we can deceive ourselves.
Even if you know the outcome beforehand, what's stirring about Mr. Hwang's eclectic blend of politics, opera and romance is the way Philip Anglim, as the diplomat, surrenders and is finally consumed by his fantasies. For, odd as the specifics may seem, this play resonates with a universal theme. How well do we know those we love? And how many of our own desires do we project on them?
A wiry man whose hair is trimmed in a deliberately unbecoming brush cut, Mr. Anglim takes a different approach to Gallimard, the diplomat, than the actor who originated the role on Broadway, JohnLithgow. Instead of an innocent oaf, Mr. Anglim shows us a nervous misfit whose awkwardness with women is surpassed only by his misconceptions about them. Gallimard's favorite opera is Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," which he believes reflects the true submissive nature of women and of the Orient.
The actor also conveys a slightly perverted air that dissipates when Gallimard becomes involved with Song Liling, the opera singer. After learning that his Madame Butterfly is really a monsieur, Mr. Anglim's Gallimard is embittered and a touch crazed, but he elicits your pity -- both because he was betrayed and because of his delusions.
Of course, it takes a skilled performer to fool not only Gallimard, but to toy with the audience as well, and A. Mapa is up to the task. The key to Mr. Mapa's slick performance is a gentleness that never completely disappears, even in the end when Song is at last being himself -- a cynical instrument of the state. Song's self-awareness is more foreign to Gallimard than is his Asian heritage.
"M. Butterfly" is more than a two-man play, however, and one of thedelights of this production -- staged by Stuart Ostrow based on the original direction by the late John Dexter -- is the way its themes carry over to the secondary characters. For instance, as Gallimard's wife, Alma Cuervo shows us a hopelessly ordinary woman who stays with her husband, despite his infidelity, because she enjoys living out the fantasy of being a diplomat's wife. Brian Reddy is also on the mark as Gallimard's boyhood chum, who thinks he knows the way the world works, but can't begin to understand his best friend.
DTC The chief element of designer Eiko Ishioka's elegant red and black lacquered set is a giant ramp that spirals all the way into the orchestra pit. It is a fitting visual metaphor for a play that twists and turns as artfully as a Chinese dragon -- captivating you with its exoticism and stunning you with its power.
*"M. Butterfly" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through Dec. 30; call 625-1400.