In 'M. Butterfly,' things aren't always as they appear

March 03, 1995|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

In a play that crosses continents, counties and gender, "M. Butterfly" is a production where East meets West, Howard County meets Montgomery County, and boy thinks he meets girl.

"M. Butterfly" will be presented tonight through Sunday and March 10-12 at Smith Theatre and will reopen March 21 for five weeks at Olney Theatre in Montgomery County.

The play is jointly produced by the Rep Stage Company, Columbia's professional acting group in residence at Howard Community College, and Olney Theatre Center.

The 1988 drama won a Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award. It is based on the bizarre yet true story of the French diplomat who had a 20-year affair with a Chinese opera star who turned out not only to be a spy but also a man.

By employing a dual story line around the Puccini opera "Madame Butterfly," Asian-American playwright David Henry zTC Hwang injects his own perceptions of how the diplomat's fantasies allowed him to be duped.

In the opera, the American naval officer Pinkerton exploits his submissive Chinese lover, whom he calls Butterfly. After he coldly abandons her to marry an American woman, the dejected and humiliated Butterfly kills herself.

For "M. Butterfly," Mr. Hwang reverses the opera. The play's socially impotent intelligence officer Rene Gallimard fantasizes that he is Pinkerton and that the opera singer Song Liling is his Butterfly, until he finally realizes that he is Butterfly. Hence the title, "M.", the French abbreviation for monsieur.

But the play is as much about politics and cultural and gender stereotypes as about passion and betrayal. Gallimard's stereotype of submissive Asian women, like the delicate Butterfly, stirs his fantasies and allows him to believe what he chooses to believe.

Those same perceptions are extended to an entire culture, says the character Song Liling, when Westerners believe that the East is a feminine culture willing to be dominated.

In narrative flashbacks, the play -- which features mature themes and brief nudity -- flips back and forth from Gallimard's French prison cell to the moment he falls in love with Song Liling during her performance of "Madame Butterfly" in the 1960s.

While arias play softly and performers dance in hand-painted costumes, dramatic lighting and revolving sets "represent Gallimard's mind like a red and gold Mandarin Chinese puzzle box," said Olney artistic director Jim Petosa.

"Theater conventions are used to explore Gallimard's psychology as he remembers his life while in prison. You literally go inside the character's mind and the mind is onstage. What is said is not what is meant. What is portrayed is really hidden."

The combined crew includes Chinese costume designer Helen Q. Huang, who worked in the Beijing opera, and a "movement consultant." The seven-member cast -- five play multiple roles -- features powerful yet restrained performances by Paul Morella as Gallimard and Jorge V. Ledesma as Song Liling.

Mr. Ledesma is convincing as both the sensitive woman he pretends to be and the manipulative male spy he really is, bringing to the role his own experiences as an Asian actor in America.

"A certain complicity is present of how we idealize rightly or wrongly a relationship or culture," said the 34-year-old native of the Philippines who now lives in Denver. "Sometimes we delude ourselves. We believe what we want to believe, irrespective of the truth."

The Rep Stage Company and Olney Theatre Center will present "M. Butterfly" at 8 p.m. today, and tomorrow and 3 p.m. Sunday and March 10-12 at Smith Theatre. Tickets are $15 for orchestra seating; $12 for mezzanine; $10 for matinees. Box Office: 964-4900.

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