How could he not know? That’s the big question that hangs over David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly , which opened Friday on the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust stage. More specifically, how could French diplomat Rene Gallimard not know that the Chinese opera star he fell in love with and kept as a mistress—often referring to her as “the perfect woman”—was, in fact, a man?
The play communicates different things depending on your answer. If you believe Gallimard knew, but chose to keep it to himself or live in denial, Gallimard is a closeted gay or bi-sexual man who is trying to maintain the appearance of heterosexual normalcy in a culture that condemns homosexuality. If you believe Gallimard did not know, then you will be more willing to accept that he fell in love with an ideal, projecting his own notions about female perfection onto his “Butterfly,” creating an illusion based on various Western cultural stereotypes about the modesty and exoticism of Asian women. Either way, Gallimard gets duped (because Butterfly isn’t just an opera star; he/she is a Chinese spy), but how and why he got fooled are questions the play leaves intentionally ambiguous.
In the Guthrie’s production, directed by Theatre Latte Da’s Peter Rothstein, Randy Reyes plays Song Ling (aka Butterfly). It’s natural to wonder if, after he’s put on a dress and done his makeup and hair, Reyes is convincing as a woman. And the short answer is: not really. Reyes’s performance is gutsy and commendable in many ways (he’s not unattractive, and his mannerisms and movement are often convincingly feminine), but you would have to suspend your disbelief from the rafters to believe he’s really a woman.
Does it matter that the illusion onstage is incomplete? Personally, I think the play is more powerful if the man playing Butterfly is beautiful enough to make Gallimard’s actions more plausible. Then again, M. Butterfly is a strangely constructed play in that it asks you to believe that this love affair may have been possible, but it also doesn’t hide the artifice and trickery involved, forcing audiences to simultaneously believe and disbelieve what’s happening onstage, suspending them in an uncomfortable state of cognitive dissonance for two and a half hours.
For his part, Andrew Long plays Gallimard with a veneer of old-fashioned naivete, as if he’s just walked out of a Tracy/Hepburn movie. This layer of artifice is entirely in keeping with the play, however, because Gallimard is not an entirely reliable narrator. In fact, he wants us to believe he is nothing but an unwitting victim of a vicious fraud. Long does a fantastic job of making Gallimard an engaging and ingratiating character whose story, as implausible as it is, has the ring of truth, however hollow it may be. And the fact that Gallimard understands his own dilemma through the plight of Pinkerton in Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly only adds more layers to the artifice/truth dialectic that permeates the play.
As usual, director Peter Rothstein stages several scenes of exquisite beauty. At the end of Act One, when Gallimard and Butterfly finally consummate their affair, they are surrounded by a shimmering cloud of rose petals (how this happens is theatrically brilliant), and all of the opera scenes that occur on a raised backdrop stage look like moving paintings. Lee Mark Nelson, Tina Chilip, and Nathaniel Fuller provide plenty of comic relief in their multiple roles as well, and hydraulic lift in the middle of the stage gets quite a workout during the scene changes.
M. Butterfly is the sort of play that sparks intense post-show discussions because it does not answer its central question—did he know?—definitively. Any clues to the truth might also be misdirections, for there is no way to know whether Gallimard himself is telling the honest truth or shading it in various ways to gain the audience’s sympathies. And, though some of the dialogue about Western and Eastern stereotypes sounds didactic and forced, it also raises interesting questions about the role of these persistently false narratives in how we view the world. That’s why it’s an important play—and why, whether you are seduced by Reyes’s Butterfly or not, you should at least see it and join the discussion.
M. Butterfly continues at the Guthrie Theater through June 6.