In Broadway’s new production of M. Butterfly, Clive Owen brings London stage chops and matinee idol polish to the play’s conflicted protagonist and semi-reliable narrator, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat in love with a Chinese opera singer who turns out to be a spy. It is a role that accommodates varying levels of power and pathos — John Lithgow was Broadway’s first Gallimard in 1988; he was followed by Anthony Hopkins, Tony Randall and, in David Cronenberg’s 1993 film, Jeremy Irons. But, as crucial as it is to have a compelling presence like Owen as the play’s lead storyteller, success here hinges on pinning the right Butterfly: Song Liling is a Chinese man claiming to Gallimard — even in bed — to be a woman, one who lives publicly as a man and performs female roles (as male singers did in traditional Chinese opera).
Julie Taymor’s take on of David Henry Hwang’s script (updated by the author for this first return to Broadway) meets that challenge with the casting of newcomer Jin Ha in a fearless, confrontational, and often seductive turn as the diva who reels in Gallimard — even while mocking him as an “adventurous imperialist.” The role of Song, originated by BD Wong in a Tony-winning performance, demands an actor be convincing as a woman — so much so that audiences will accept that Gallimard could mistake Song for female. But he must also, once out of drag, upturn Western stereotypes of Asian masculinity as effeminate — the character embodies the play’s uncomfortable themes of gender and race. “Being an Oriental, I can never be completely a man,” Song offers as an explanation of how he deceived his European lover. (And if you doubt that our perceptions of gender are tangled up with those of race, consider that the similarly themed film The Crying Game was believed by some, even four years after M. Butterfly’s triumph, to be uncastable; a fellow director told Neil Jordan it would be “impossible to find a black guy who could play a woman.”)
Three decades ago, the true story that inspired Hwang’s Pulitzer-finalist script unfolded in the news: A French diplomat (Bernard Boursicot, now 83) and his Chinese lover (Shi Pei Pu, who died in 2009) were convicted of espionage. Not only had Boursicot not known his longtime paramour was a spy but, the Frenchman insisted, he had not known “she” was a man — after all, they had a child together. From that premise, Hwang imagined something more, weaving in Madama Butterfly’s parallel tale of a Japanese girl betrayed by the American officer she loved, and the West’s utter misreading of Asia as Communism swept through. Posted with his wife to Peking, as Beijing was then called, Gallimard in the play predicts the Vietnam War “could be over in a year,” because “Orientals will always submit to a greater force.”
The headlines faded, and Hwang was able in 1988 to make Song’s gender revelation a dramatic centerpiece. (BD Wong’s initialed name aided the mystery; he’s Bradley Darryl). But the show’s secret is long out, and that suits Taymor’s production just fine. Spared the pressure of keeping a spoiler under wraps, this revised Butterfly has room to expand its political parable, and more deeply explore Song’s backstory (or at least the one he provides Gallimard) as well his motivations for spying. Celeste Den is terrific as his bossy overseer, Comrade Chin, who offers an empty reminder that “homosexuality doesn’t exist in China.”
Today, that line gets a look-how-far-we’ve-come chuckle. In our age of “love is love is love is love,” Owen’s Gallimard can more pointedly question if he had even that: Was he just a mark for a spy, or did his Butterfly feel for him from the beginning? And could Gallimard truly love Song if he never saw him for who and what he really was? (Note for concerned parents or other blushing flowers: The question of his anatomy is answered on stage unambiguously.) It’s telling that the object of Gallimard’s fantasy comes wrapped in the Japanese kimono that the Chinese Song wears to portray Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly — along with the gender bending, he is indulging in cross-cultural drag, and it’s all the same to a European under the exotic sway of what he believes to be the “perfect woman.”
That knotty thematic swirl provides the inventive Taymor with a well-equipped playground. Though best known for elevating a Disney cartoon into the multi-cultural theatrical landmark that is The Lion King, Taymor has directed many operas, and the masks, costumes, and choreography of the Peking opera are clearly up her street. (We are treated to a few percussive moments of “The Butterfly Lovers,” another she-as-he tragic romance rooted in Chinese folklore). The sets — oversized screens that obscure and reveal — are spare, and when Gallimard breaks the fourth wall, pouting that he no longer wants to tell his story if we are to be shown elements he’d just as soon forget, Taymor is right there to upend the whole thing for him, baring the bones of the theater building.
That scene is among the new updates, most of which are seamlessly integrated into the original. One of Hwang’s revisions that stood jarringly out, however, was the addition of Song’s anatomically detailed explanation to a French court of how he approximated for Gallimard the illusion of sex with a woman. It does clear up any lingering questions about what went where. But to what end? M. Butterfly has proven its relevance into the Wikipedia era — you can look up the particulars on your phone at intermission if you’re so inclined — but its greater enduring value is as a thought-provoking fable. Even among today’s audiences, more socially and culturally enlightened than those of 30 years ago, who could blame Gallimard for responding to grim reality with the defeated admission, “I choose fantasy”? A-