Review: ‘M. Butterfly at City Lights a searing spectacle

Rene Gallimard (Kit Wilder) reflects on his life in China in "M. Butterfly" at City Lights, running through April 19th. (Photo by Mike Ko)
Rene Gallimard (Kit Wilder) reflects on his life in China in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” at City Lights, running through April 19th. (Photo by Mike Ko)

The shadows fill the air with mystery. Soft blues and curvy silhouettes create palpable intrigue, one that scintillates with curiosity.

Filling those curves is Song Liling, a young Chinese opera singer who captivates Rene Gallimard, a civil servant who works for the French embassy in China. The intrigue for Gallimard comes from a few different places. It comes from the exoticness of what is routinely referred to as the “oriental.” It’s the long, sleek black hair. The silk gowns with delicious flower patterns. And the demureness of the walk, with eyes that look up ever so slightly, eyes filled with desires.

City Lights Theatre Company explores this phenomenon in their production of the David Henry Hwang opus “M. Butterfly,” directed with gallant and thoughtful force by Jeffrey Bracco. The play is seen through the eyes of Gallimard (a strong-as-can-be performance by artistic director Kit Wilder). Gallimard is clearly fascinated by Song (A forcefully driven turn by N. Louie). Compare the way she moves, as smooth as the butterfly she personifies, to Gallimard’s wife Helga (April Green, who played his clueless wife with certainty), who is taller and possesses a more awkward gait. Or to speak as Shakespeare would, “My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.”

So much of the story is created on misogynistic and racial tones, Hwang sparing no expense to sear the Western world and their views of Asian women. “”The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. …Basically, ‘Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes,” bemoans Song.

Gallimard is obsessed with the mystery and magnetism of opera singer Song Liling, who is as elusive as a butterfly. (Photo by Mike Ko)
Gallimard is obsessed with the mystery and magnetism of opera singer Song Liling, who is as elusive as a butterfly. (Photo by Mike Ko)

Jeffrey Bracco’s sharp and tactful direction moves fluidly on Ron Gasparinetti’s vast set. Action takes place in various locations, from an apartment where Gallimard and Helga share their living space, to an opera hall where we see Song portraying fateful lover Cio-Cio-San in Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.”

It is this fascination with the mystique of Song that Gallimard is pulled towards. He is smitten by her demureness, her gentle voice, the way she invites him into her mysterious world. And it allows him to carry on a relationship with her for so long, yet never fully challenges her. Except for one time:

“Will you take off your clothes for me?”

It is a question that can only be answered one way for Gallimard’s satisfaction. Song is able to skirt around the issue. And since Gallimard is putty in her hands, the challenge is very short lived.

Hwang’s play is certainly and indictment on the perceptions of eastern culture, the belief that Asians should not be strong or forceful in any of their dealings. This is masterfully shared through the parallel of Madame Butterfly. Pinkerton, the American military man in the opera, best exemplifies these attitudes toward the east. He represents the worst of the arrogant western attitude, a man who marries Cio-Cio-San out of convenience, converts her to Christianity, and then leaves for home so he can get a “real wife,” leaving her alone with her devastation.

There are plenty of scrumptious touches in the show, anchored beautifully by Wilder. What he does so well is create some wonderful levels with such a gargantuan role, one that rarely sees him off the stage. The role is certainly tricky, fluctuating seamlessly from presentational to representational, creating a connection with the audience in one moment and various characters in others. His work was buttoned beautifully in the final denouement, with just the right amount of levels.

Louie’s portrayal of Song took just a bit more time to get used to. Initially, Louie’s conviction was not there, but in time, the performance became much more effective, and in plenty of moments, razor sharp.

Take one particular example, the moment where Gallimard and Helga are discussing a potential pregnancy. It is here where Louie listens beautifully, full of sharp intent. Both Wilder and Louie played many intentions with zeal.

Other actors were effective as well. Keith C. Marshall was a great counterpart to Wilder’s Gallimard, moving effortlessly in and out of three characters. Laura Espino certainly showcased total commitment, fulfilling Bracco’s vision of pulling no punches in a bold staging. And Jessica Do along with Lee-Ron functioned nicely as shadow actors, pushing the story forward and helping the show seamlessly transition from moment to moment.

This production of “M. Butterfly” and so very true to the text, one of the greatest plays I have read. City Lights’ bold staging is quite a triumph, a daring piece of theatre that is edgy and dangerous. Just the way it ought to be.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

City Lights Theater Company presents “M. Butterfly”
Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Jeffrey Bracco
The Word: Kit Wilder anchors a very strong production of David Henry Hwang’s powerful, thought-provoking piece, which is also very aesthetically pleasing.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
City Lights Theater Company
529 S. Second St., San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $17 – $35
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200 or visit www.cltc.org

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