A French diplomat walks into a bar in China and begins a twenty-year affair with a man disguised as a female opera singer who also happens to gather information from him for the Chinese Communist party. This is no punchline, but rather a production of “M. Butterfly,” written by David Henry Hwang and adapted from true events, at the Everyman Theatre.
Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat played with intense depth by Bruce Randolph Nelson, greets us first from his jail cell in the 1980s, and as the clock rewinds, he begins to tell us his story.
Gallimard loves the opera “Madama Butterfly,” composed by Puccini, which tells the story of a Western man who falls in love with a Japanese woman, Butterfly, and then leaves her shortly after their wedding. Butterfly waits dutifully for his return, only to commit suicide when she realizes he is never coming back.
His Western prejudices and stereotypes about Asian people are brought to the forefront of the play very early when he meets and falls in love with Song Lilith, an opera singer played by Vichet Chum, who contests his opinions about “Madama Butterfly” and about the East as their relationship begins.
Their affair continues for twenty years, during which Gallimard never discovers his lover is also a man, who through gaining Gallimard’s trust, begins to collect information for the Chinese Communist party to use, subverting the stereotypical Western-Asian power dynamic. As much as Gallimard believes he is in control, Song is the one who truly has the power in their relationship.
Throughout the play, alternate narrators fight for dominance over the tale in a sort of meta-documentary-style story-telling. Gallimard is often interrupted in the beginning of his story by a particularly boisterous and womanizing childhood friend, Marc (played by Yaegel T. Welch) and by the end, he almost splits the story-telling with Song.
While sometimes feeling too much, this change of narration adds a lot to Gallimard’s character as we learn of past failed sexual experiences with women and of Song’s view of Gallimard throughout the affair, challenging us to see past the single point of view with which we are so often confronted.
Perhaps the most interesting artistic decision throughout the three act play was to effectively throw away the last intermission. Song takes this time to change back into a man, taking off his makeup at a vanity that projects his transformation to a dimly lit audience. The audience is invited to leave if they want, but, on opening night, no one did.
“M. Butterfly” tries to tackle more social issues than it has time for. As a destruction of the stereotype that Asian women are submissive to Western men, the play is phenomenal. In this “M. Butterfly,” it is not Song who is ultimately the Butterfly of Puccini’s opera. Rather, it is Gallimard who finds himself pierced through the heart and left to perish in a jail cell, broken-hearted and alone.
There is more to it than that, though, and those other issues—like Gallimard’s sexuality or Song’s attraction to the Communist party—were not as well explored or destructed as they could have been, leaving the audience with more questions than answers in the wake of the play’s ending scene, a blatantly symbolic suicide attempt by Gallimard as he literally becomes the Butterfly of Puccini’s opera.
“M. Butterfly” is running through October 8 at the Everyman Theatre. Everyman features a $10 student rush for B location seating 30 minutes before every scheduled performance and is offered to those with a valid student ID. Additionally, all Sunday evening performances are $10 for students in B location seating with a valid ID. Full price tickets can be purchased for $43-49.