Full disclaimer: I’ve never been the biggest fan of David Henry Hwang’s ‘M Butterfly.” I took up the play in drama class in college and something always irked me about the play. It felt didactic, literal in its dialogue, and flippant towards the seriousness of its subject matter. I’ve never seen the play, though, just read and dissected the script in class and we did see the 1993 film adaptation by David Cronenberg with Jeremy Irons and John Lone. The movie left me cold.
But I had not seen the play and maybe the energy is best presented live, living and breathing on stage.
Frontrow Entertainment’s restaging of ‘M Butterfly’ at the Maybank Performing Arts Center was the perfect opportunity for me to see the play for the first time. In a day and age where the LGBTQIA discussions have gone global and very nuanced, it was an interesting exercise in revisiting the 1988 Tony Award winning play. How has it aged and did it age well? How would director Kanakan Balintagos navigate the evolving language of LGBTQIA representation with a play that helped put a spotlight on these issues 30 years ago as well as racism towards Asians in America?
Despite the technical difficulties experienced on preview night -- mostly from faulty microphones -- Balintagos’ production is a lush and dynamic visual treat with an ever changing set; there is creative use of the theatricality of the narrative setting by employing large painted hand fans evoking what we would imagine the Chinese opera would use, since its main character is a singer and actress in the Chinese opera house.
But as energetic as the stage design and the use of props, the staging lacked heart. ‘M Butterfly’ is the story of a French diplomat, Rene Gallimard (Olivier Borten), who is stationed in China and falls in love with the Peking Opera star Song Liling (RS Francisco), who turns out to be a man and a spy for the Chinese, using Gallimard’s affection to affect foreign relation policies and stealing national secrets.
In his cell, Gallimard recalls the events that led to his imprisonment and ponders on how he could have been fooled for so long and fallen in love with a woman, who was a man all along.
The play, back in the 80s, was an eye-opening conversation starter about how men view women and how the West viewed the East. It questions our ideas of masculinity and femininity and the imperial mentality to think better of their neighbors. 30 years later, though, the conversation has moved on further than this and the topic, though relevant and powerful, seems overly simplistic.
What takes away from the soul of the play is the fact that while the stagecraft is creative, there’s very little emphasis on drama that’s unfolding on stage. Most of the lines are delivered without any nuance or emotional level. It’s the same note from beginning to end. It is also unfortunate that the play’s narrator and lead, Olivier Borten, plays Gallimard with very little warmth. Throughout the play, he delivers his lines without real care for context. His narration in the cell is the same intensity and digs into the same emotional well as when he reenacts the flashback scenes when he falls into the seduction of Song Liling. Without that shift of tone or character, the character arc is never felt. His portrayal of regret is the same as his portrayal of falling in love.
Much has been said of RS Francisco’s reprisal of the role of Song Liling but the direction given seems more intent in his ability to show off the lavish costumes and playfully wink at the audience, who already knows that he is a man underneath the makeup and the dresses. There is even a scene, when Song Liling is pretending to be soft and delicate, part of the seduction of Gallimard, that Francisco sticks out his leg in a very Angelina Jolie at the Oscars moment that totally breaks the idea of the character and the scene. It elicits the laughs, but it ran counter to what was happening to the scene.
The play is so self-aware of the fact that the audience knows the twist that it fails to use it to its full potential. It is not directed to be fully committed to the deception, nor does it feel fully committed to playing with the idea that we know and adjust the scenes to fully utilize this.
I was really hoping that seeing the play on stage, it would change my view of David Henry Hwang’s Tony award winning play but ‘M Butterfly’ will always be a mystery to me. The only standout is Maya Encila, who seems to have synched in to the audience’s point-of-view and plays her character, Renee, with a level of camp that seemed most fitting to this staging.
M Butterfly runs until Sunday, September 30, 2018, at the Globe Auditorium of Maybang Performing Arts Theater, BGC Arts Center, 26th Street corner 9th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City. Rating: R-18. To book your tickets, click here.