M. BUTTERFLY at Custom Made is worth a visit

Left: Sean Fenton brings youthful sincerity as Song Liling and is a fine match for Rik Lopes as Rene Gallimard (background) Right: Kira Shaw brings the house down with her observation on the private anatomy of world leaders.

M. BUTTERFLY by David Henry Hwang, directed by Stuart Bousel. The Gough Street Playhouse (formerly The Next Stage), attached to the historic Trinity Church, 1620 Gough Street (at Bush), San Francisco. www.custommade.org. Through April 16, 2011.

M. BUTTERFLY at Custom Made is worth a visit


It is common knowledge that much of the fare produced on TV is “ripped from the headlines.” In the case of David Henry Hwang’s 1988, Tony Award winning play M. Butterfly the inspiration was from a small news item about a minor French diplomat’s affair with Chinese Opera star revealed as a man and a spy. The diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, insisted he never knew that his lover was male. They were both tried in a French court and sent to jail.

Hwang took that story blending fantasy with reality creating a superb script of love, betrayal, delusional behavior and at the same time boldly emphasizing the dichotomy of East and West. Moreover, he interweaves Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, book ending the play with the famous suicide scene suggesting an Oriental woman would rather die than live a life of shame. B. D. Wong became a household name with his stirring performance as Song Liling, the opera star/lover/ and spy. Locally, Francis Jue imbued the role of Song Liling with dignity in the excellent TheatreWorks production. Sean Fenton brings youthful sincerity as Song Liling and is a fine match for Rik Lopes as Rene Gallimard who rules the stage in Custom Made’s production.

The play is mostly a series of monlogs by Rene telling his story in jumbled recollections of the events that have landed him in jail and distorted his mind. He rationalizes his predicament citing his unpopularity in high school. The juxtaposition of the sexual freedom lived by his best friend Marc (Kai Morrison) magnifies Rene’s social/sexual ineptitude. His ego blossoms after receiving love and affection from Song Liling but it also imbues him with power often neglecting Song. Rene’s desire to ascend the social/ diplomatic ladder within the French colony in China leads to a loveless marriage to Helga whose first motivation is status as a diplomat’s wife and secondly to have a child. Rene’s new found cockiness leads to a sexual affair with an exchange student (female) Renee (Kira Shaw) who defines world politics "That's what we call civilized society. The whole world run by guys with pricks the size of pins."

The period is the middle 60s with the U. S. struggling in Vietnam and both the French and the Chinese are desirous of wartime information. Rene is elevated to a senior position and is to use his known dalliance with Song as a conduit for information. Song is his Chinese counterpart controlled by Chin (Karen Offereins) a product of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Through a series of diplomatic blunders on his part Rene returns to France later to be joined by Song. And you probably know the rest of the story.

Director Stuart Bousel has put a very distinct stamp on the production that does not always work. He takes full advantage of the three-tiered set and allows the actors to address the audience seated on three sides of the stage. The ancillary characters play their roles with broad strokes. It does add levity to a long show (two hours and 40 minutes) but at times detracts from the major characters. Rik Lopes is small in stature and the juxtaposition of the full bosomed Xanadu Bruggers as Helga is really brilliant casting. Kia Shaw does a bang-up job as the slut Renee and brings the house down with her line about the guys who run the world. Karen Offereins as the brainwashed didactic “keeper” controlling Song gives a realistic performance.

Recommendation: ***1/2 (out of five)

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldinternetmagazine.com