So, OK, you're not the most observant guy in the world. You're busy planning world policy, thinking lofty thoughts. Even after 20 years of living together, you haven't noticed every tiny detail of her appearance. Such as that, technically, she is a he.
That's the real-life dilemma in which French diplomat Bernard Boursicot found himself in 1983 - a dilemma depicted by playwright David Henry Hwang in M. Butterfly, receiving a spellbinding production at Arena Stage in Washington. Boursicot's lover, Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, was unmasked as a transvestite and spy. During the diplomat's trial for treason, he steadfastly maintained that he had believed Shi to be a she, and even that he had fathered a son with "her."
It is perhaps an extreme example of a dilemma in which ordinary guys find themselves every day, when they are chastised by an exasperated spouse for having failed to notice that they have just used up the last scrap of toilet paper, or that she has shaved her scalp and painted a purple stripe down the middle of her head. In these high-stress moments, men may even feel a fleeting sympathy for Boursicot. Or perhaps not.
Despite its moments of undeniable comedy, Hwang's exquisite little puzzle-box raises serious issues via the technique of setting frames within frames. There's Puccini's Madame Butterfly, the real-life story of Boursicot and Shi, Hwang's re-imagining of the lovers' story, and our own knowledge of what happened in China and Vietnam in the 1960s through the 1980s.
The play raises all kinds of questions about betrayal, and the way we see only what we want to see - as individuals, but also as nations. About the way love is inextricably intertwined with fantasy. And about the fluidity of sexual preference.
The story begins in Beijing in 1960, where Gallimard is a rising young diplomat advising the U.S. government on what policy to take in the emerging hot spot of Vietnam. At a party, he is entranced by a young singer, Song Liling, performing the death scene from Puccini's 1904 opera, Madame Butterfly. Gallimard starts haunting the Beijing opera, where Song is a regular performer. Soon, their affair begins, and Song persuades Gallimard to reveal U.S. military secrets, which she passes along to Communist Party officials.
Recent Juilliard graduate J. Hiroyuki Liao makes a virtuosic professional debut as Song. It's fascinating to see how effortlessly his performance combines artifice and naturalism.
The audience knows from the very beginning that Song is a man, and director Tazewell Thompson emphasizes this deception by having Liao move across the stage with the exaggerated choreography of a character in a Chinese opera. The sleeves of Liao's elaborately embroidered robes float through the air and his hands move like a flock of birds.
But his transformation in the play's closing scenes is utterly believable. Literally before our eyes, Liao becomes a cocky, finger-snapping young gay man, preening over his Armani slacks.
As Gallimard, Stephen Bogardus necessarily is less flashy, but is equally impressive. When Song succumbs to Gallimard's advances, Bogardus' hollow-cheeked, thin-lipped face has the look of a starving orphan at a banquet. When Gallimard, in a prison robe, tells the audience that he imagines us "coming to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy me," Bogardus' stubborn dignity is pathetic - but also heroic.
Near the end, lighting director Robert Wierzel throws giant, cross-hatched beams of light across the ground. The stage looks for all the world like a giant game of tic-tac-toe. Gallimard and Song are the players. What isn't so clear is who wins.
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 17.
Call: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org