When the Judge, played by Hu Alaric Toy in David Hwang's Tony Award winning play M. Butterfly, asks Song Liling how he managed for 20 years to trick his lover Rene into thinking he was a woman, the Chinese actor, singer and spy replies, "One, because when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And second, I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man."
Hwang attacks cultural and social prejudices such as these in his account of the demise of Rene Gallimard, a French consul living in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution of the '60s. The plot is based on a true story of an affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese actress that became public in 1986 with expected notoriety. The Chinese actress, who supposedly bore the diplomat's child, was, in fact, both a spy and a man.
Inversions of sexual stereotypes have been used as an artistic device before. The most notable example occurs in the movie, The Crying Game, where the leading character is an IRA terrorist. Here, in M. Butterfly, Gallimard falls in love with a man that embodies his vision of what an ideal woman should be.
M. Butterfly was the featured presentation last weekend of the Asian American Association Players under the direction of LeeAnn Tzeng together with producers Michelle Chen '99, Flora Kao '00 and Michelle Lee '01. The cast delivered energetic and entertaining performances but at times seemed to overplay the exaggerated prejudices of their characters. Then again, Hwang's script leaves little room for interpretation. The drama revolves around one dimensional, stock characters, and that is how the cast portrayed them.
Jay Chaffin '00 skillfully conveyed both Rene's insecurity and futile search for a false ideal of true love when he described through a series of flashbacks from his cell in a Paris prison the details of Rene's scandalous affair. John Doan's portrayal of Rene's friend Marc as a ruthless womanizer who views women as objects designed for his pleasure magnified the pitiful character of Rene, who was unpopular at school, indulged his fantasies by reading playboy and married an older woman he didn't love.
Rene's feelings of sexual inadequacy vanish when he hears Song sing the death scene from Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, a tale of love between an American navy officer and Japanese opera singer who kills herself after the officer abandons her. Here is what Rene has dreamt of his whole life: a beautiful woman who will submit to all his desires. Joseph Salonga played Song convincingly in a wig and ballet slippers, but could have projected better the seductive tone of his character's voice. I had difficulty making out some of his lines.
Rene's success does not end with Song. At a party, he meets another version of his fantasy: a Danish student, played by Alexis Loeb '02, who within minutes of striking up a conversation asks him if he wants to fool around.
Rene's chauvinistic attitude toward women infuses his political views. He repeatedly conflates stereotypes of Asian women as submissive sex slaves with an imperialistic view of the East. We can't help but wince at cliches such as, "So much for protecting her in my big Western arms" or "Orientals will always submit to a greater force," which he produces with over-whelming frequency. Rene follows in the footsteps of the comic figure prevalent in classical theater, a buffoon so completely blinded by a shallow and childlike ideology that he fails or rather refuses to foresee his eventual ruin.
Through an ironic plot twist, Rene assumes Butterfly's role at the end of the play. He puts on a kimono and stabs himself in the chest as Song, who has the last word, calls out, "Butterfly? Butterfly?"
Hwang hints at this role reversal in the title with M. for Monsieur in place of Madame. This clever touch is hardly subtle. While he successfully manages to assemble a vast panorama of social and political issues, Hwang sometimes tries so hard to get his point across, he practically beats it into our heads with a sledgehammer. His message is an important one, but its didactic presentation eclipses the humor he tries so hard to achieve.
At times strained, the performance overcame limitations of the script to provoke laughter in some of the more outrageous scenes. The cast drew the audience into the drama. They entertained and surprised us and left us feeling that we had seen a good show.
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