Julie Taymor’s elegant revival of David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly remains a nuanced, spare, evocative dreamwork. It tells the story of a diplomat’s illegal actions, a Chinese citizen’s pragmatic moves to survive, and it is, of course, a gender play that spoke to us in one way in 1988 and now speaks differently to us in 2017. What once might have played as a provocative tale of sexual mysteries — one with a forbidden undercurrent of anatomical curiosity — is now a love story, maybe a love story in a love story, all in the context of Chinese and American politics in the middle of the 20th century.
M. Butterfly flashes between a French jail cell in 1986 and various locales in south Asia some 20 years earlier. It is narrated primarily by a French diplomat, Rene Gallimard (a solid, believably clumsy, beautiful Clive Owen), a boy from the provinces who dreams of other worlds and feels like an outsider; a man who marries an ambassador’s daughter who can help his career. Gallimard is assigned to Beijing, where he monitors the American military ramp-up in Vietnam. His story plays out on a battleground of blurred gender presentations and evolving quagmires, both personal and political. Bored with his wife, Agnes (too-little-seen Enid Graham), Gallimard is entranced by a Chinese performer who entertains at an embassy function. She is Song (delicate, strong-jawed Jin Ha), but she is not a she; she is a man who plays a woman opera performer who passes as a man in daily life but convinces his heterosexual soon-to-be lover, Gallimard, that he’s really a woman.
In Taymor’s production, we’re not so much sexually aroused by Song’s bedroom ruse as we are intrigued by the social and political dynamics of post-revolutionary Communist China. It works, as it did in 1988, like gangbusters.
The initial, and central, operatic metaphor of the play is Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (in which an Oriental woman is beloved, knocked up and abandoned by a Westerner). It is beloved by Gallimard and shares stage time with extended sequences from the Chinese opera The Butterfly Lovers (in which a young girl passes as a boy to obtain an education, falls in love with a classmate, is betrothed to another, and the lovers unite in death as equals). “It’s my story,” Song tells Gallimard of the latter, all the while making fun of the Western fascination with the delicate, dependent Asian female myth celebrated by Puccini.
The fourth wall is never up in this world of Taymor’s restrained visuals, multiple narrators, and occasional debates over who has the right to tell the story. Gallimard invites us into the story from his jail cell in the late 1980s: “I imagine you — my idea audience.” His Australian friend Marc (boisterous, charming Murray Bartlett) tries to charm women in the audience directly and is quickly shut down by Gallimard: “This is my story, not yours.” Then there’s an intriguing sequence in which we meet Song’s Communist handler, Comrade Chin (the potent, occasionally terrifying Celeste Den), whose appearance in the story is questioned by Gallimard as well. “Wait, who is that?,” asks Gallimard after Chin enters a scene. “The one you heard about, in the courtroom, during our trial,” Song replies. “What’s going on here? She’s not part of my story,” Gallimard complains, and Song answers: “Yes, she is. Because she’s part of mine.” Later, in an exchange between Gallimard and Song, Gallimard questions the choice of including exchanges with Chin. “Why are you forcing them to see all this?” he queries. “You’re making a mockery of our story!” What these competing narrators provide, of course, are competing truths.
The layers of gender and sexual connection thus never escape their social context here, even as they’re held in equipoise by Taymor’s lean staging, Donald Holder’s lighting, Paul Steinberg’s sets and Ma Cong’s choreography. We’re not in a romantic haze, exactly, but we are asked to constantly analyze the machinations of the plot. The big production reveal isn’t the drop of a privacy cloth, in fact, but competing desires: Song publicly describes the sexual details of the ruse in a French courtroom, where he seeks truth through revelation. It is in that moment, in that part of Hwang’s revised text, that the play, and the production, fatefully missteps: the physical details of Song’s charade, outlining what was pulled where and what pocket of skin was left to allow what felt like penetration, simply don’t mesh with a presentation that is otherwise full of wit and poetry and intellect. The tone is reclaimed, however, in an imagined debate in which Song argues to fully reveal himself while Gallimard argues to retain what illusions still remain — his preferred truth being little more than obfuscation.
M. Butterfly is now, ultimately, a story of equals, a story of lives that change under the politics that frame them. Gallimard is removed from his post due to his faulty intelligence. Song’s beloved opera troupe falls under younger revolutionary hands. There is no blushing flower waiting to be saved; there is no one with right on their side. And how that blushing flower might be played remains an open question. Late in the play, Song poses a riddle to Comrade Chin: Why are women’s roles traditionally played by men in the Peking Opera? “Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” is the reply. Even Gallimard calls himself “a man who loved a woman created by a man.” Thus M. Butterfly takes wing as both a hazy romance and clear-eyed tragedy.