Costumes gave 'Butterfly' star his biggest challenge

December 21, 1990|By Mike Giuliano

On stage at the Mechanic Theatre in David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," the actor billed as A. Mapa is an alluringly feminine Chinese opera star, but backstage at the theater, the male actor named Alec Mapa wears blue jeans, eats hamburgers in his dressing room and talks like the young American guy he is.

"M. Butterfly" takes a look at how the Occident views the Orient in the stereotypical terms of the opera "Madam Butterfly." More specifically, it's based on a real-life incident in which a French diplomat in China (Philip Anglim) fell in love with the opera star Song Liling (Mr. Mapa) without realizing that she was a he. With so much deception and so much illusion in the air, it's not surprising to see how different Mr. Mapa looks in street clothes, sans makeup and costumes.

But, oh, those costumes. Before talking about himself, Mr. Mapa gives a guided tour of a rack full of gorgeous silk and satin kimonos. And then there is the elaborate headdress that makes Song Liling look like exotic royalty. His small hands flipping through the dresses, this slightly built actor says that "it's hard to be delicate moving on stage with so much to wear."

To pose the delicate question, though. In preparing for the role, was it tough making the gender transformation?

"I wish it were a bigger deal than it was playing a woman. But I have the right cheekbones to play a woman, and I also have the voice training for it.

"Of course, at first, there were certain logistics to moving in my costume that took time to learn. It's like learning how to drive. You're clumsy at first. The important thing has always been that it must look like a real person. Anybody can put on a dress, but there must be something behind it. Otherwise, it's just a drag show."

Far from being a mere theatrical gimmick, Song Liling comes out of a Chinese operatic tradition of male actors embodying female roles, because as Mr. Mapa explains: "The reasoning was that only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act. It is a man's version of what he wants a woman to be."

Mr. Mapa has been dressing up as Song Liling since graduating from New York University. He understudied B. D. Wong as Song Liling in the original Broadway production, which won the 1988 Tony Award for best play, assumed the role himself on Broadway for nearly a year, and is now on a yearlong tour. For the young actor, it has all been a fast ride to Broadway experience and the touring life.

And this fast ride has made him more aware of how his own Asian heritage strikes some of his fellow Americans.

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