“Truth or illusion, George; you don’t know the difference,” brays Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The shadow land between the two is a human constant and has been a theme in drama from the beginning. Oedipus fails to perceive his culpability, even though it is right there in front of him. A ghost no one else can see haunts Macbeth. In David Henry Hwang’s Tony award winning play, M. Butterfly, self-delusion derails a French diplomat who falls for a Chinese opera star, beginning an ill-fated liaison that leads to incarceration decades later. I give away no secrets here, all this is exposed in the first minutes of this extraordinary play being given an excellent production at South Coast Repertory.
The drama begins and ends in a Paris prison in the year 1988 as former French diplomat René Gallimard (Lucas Verbrugghe) constructs his story from memories, imparting it to the audience in a theatrical, presentational style, shifting time again and again to return to the Beijing of Communist China in the 1960s and then to Paris in the 1970s and 80s. Gallimard is an awkward man, hesitant and unsure of himself and somewhat shy with women. He adores the opera Madama Butterfly and the story of the submissive Cho-Cho-San, who loves the American cad, Pinkerton. When Gallimard sees Song Liling (the extraordinary Jake Manabat) play the role, he is smitten and returns again and again to the opera to see the star perform. Meeting up after a performance, Song disabuses Gallimard of his fantasy of the submissive Asian woman, but soon strikes up an enduring liaison with the Frenchman, who gives her the pet name, “Butterfly.” The truth of Song Liling’s nature is mutable in the mind of the love struck Gallimard. He believes what he wants to believe. For an audience, the truth is right there in the title.
The story is fleshed out with the events and politics of the 1960s – the still fresh memory of the humiliating French defeat in Indochina, the gradual evolution of the American presence in Viet Nam, and the grim upheaval of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Gallimard’s personal life is laid bare in scenes with his frustrated wife, Agnes (Nike Doukas) and his long-time best friend, Marc (Aaron Blakely), a likeable realist who appears again and again to give advice and impart some comic relief.
Rounding out the cast, Juliana Hansen is sexy, bright, and funny, first as come-to-life pin-up girl in Gallimard’s memories, and later as a liberated 1960s student, Renée, with whom Gallimard has an awkward fling; Stephen Caffrey as Gallimard’s boss, the French ambassador and later as the judge at Gallimard’s trial; and Melody Butiu as the rigid, didactic Comrade Chin, a member of Mao’s Red Guard who hectors Song Liling.
The ensemble of dancers—Annika Alejo, Yoko Hasebe, Andres Lagang, and Sophy Zhao—perform as members of the traditional Chinese Opera, and later, en pointe in Red Army uniforms.
Exquisitely directed by Desdemona Chiang, M. Butterfly is played out on the open scenic design of Ralph Funicello, lit by Josh Epstein, which emphasizes the bleak loneliness of the prisoner Gallimard. At the beginning, he is seen sitting alone on a bench that rises from the floor with huge, dark shoji screens upstage. In later scenes, set pieces glide in and out, and the screens open to reveal the cyclorama colored for different locales. Costumes by Sara Ryung Clement are exquisite and support place, characters, and action. Andre J. Pluess’ sound design and original music are ideal. Choreography is by Annie Yee, and the stage is managed under the sure hand of Moira Gleason.
M. Butterfly runs through June 8 on the Segerstrom Stage of South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.