That mystery about a French man living with a Japanese wife for 20 years and not knowing that she was a man had been a curious enigma, until 1988 when David Henry Hwang’s M. BUTTERFLY premiered on Broadway. Hwang’s narrative – despite his limited resources at that time – paved way into solidifying arguments on Orientalism: one which critics and modern philosophers have been theorizing all along. How his characters’ dynamisms and his rhetorics introduced a new kind of gender-bending twist, surprised audiences the way Hitchcock’s PSYCHO did in 1960; and how we define characters and explore psychology from post-colonial perspectives, twisted our early definitions of who is better than the other.
JHETT TOLENTINO AND FRONTROW ENTERTAINMENT’s restaging of Hwang’s M. BUTTERFLY 30 years after attempts to bring back some of the material’s original intent. Yet, it reimagines the world of Renee Gallimard and Song Liling – its main characters – for a more modern and knowing audiences. Gone are the times of unexpected surprises by the end of Act 2. This 2018 viewing makes the trip rather attached and more questioning. Thirty years after the gaping premiere audiences in New York, we now know what lies ahead. Through its non-linear discourse, we probe and critique through the journey, posing quite a demanding task for its director and its actors.
To give M. BUTTERFLY a new life, Hwang revised his material for a more modern audience. Shock and awe at the revelation of Song’s biological sex were exchanged for a more contemporary exploration of gender fluidity, expanding its original themes and aligning newer understanding of the gender spectrum.
This Hwang masterpiece, now playing at the Maybank Performing Arts Center is a retelling that has gone nuclear. Loaded with colors, flamboyance, and pomp, it explodes quite vividly, however sacrificing its central intention to tell and argue.
Director Kanakan Balintagos envisions this world with symbolic surrealism. But though his barrage of colors, pageantry and lurid actions, one might find himself lost in a deviant visual avalanche on stage. Though I see his faithful intentions, such orchestrated direction gruellingly drowns Hwang’s material and the critical arguments that come with it.
Consider the array of Song’s elegant wardrobe, which, by the way, alluringly changes in every scene. Eric Pineda designs with great attention to detail, but misses visualizing the conceptual distance between its two leads. In one scene when Gallimard finally went back to Song’s apartment after intentionally distancing himself, she entered in a lavish glittery long black gown that looks more Western than Oriental. This consequently fails to draw the gap between its two leads (Song should have been dressed in a Chinese quipao), one that is quite critical to establish two polarized cultures and mindsets. That is why when Song kneels to prepare tea for Gallimard, it simply becomes a passing scene instead of making it a great moment to visualize cultural polarities.
I’ve always liked Ohm David thematic concepts before, but his work for M. BUTTERFLY feels like a rushed sketch. Though quite inviting at first sight, David’s set design proves to be an unavailing facade as the curtains open. It doesn’t serve any function, much less add layer to the dynamics on stage. What we see is a platform built just for form without functionality.
Renee Gallimard may have the easy wits, but he is easily fooled in romance, yet Olivier Borton pulls him down a couple of notches lower still. As much as we want Gallimard to be our pitiful victim in this curious tragedy, Borton curiously transforms this character from ridiculous to pathetic. Yes, Borton may have the authentic look and sound, but what he lacks is the needed spirit and rhythm that pull audiences to characters like Gallimard. In Hwang’s universe and narrative, Gallimard serves as the central figure, expected to pull his listeners closer to understand why he chose what he chose, and did what he did. On stage, Borton simply translates Hwang’s written texts into spoken dialogues that often feels too literal and dissonant.
RS Francisco’s reprisal of Song Liling jumps too far off from what we initially expected. Here, Francisco has taken his Song into more glittering flamboyance, ultimately dismissing the hint of mystery that comes with her wit and scheming manipulation. Fine: we can assume that almost everyone now knows her real sex, but there must be something more than plain theatricality and swagging vanity. Unfortunately, Francisco missed offering a better reinterpretation for the 21st century audience. His Song, though alluring and mostly seductive, just simply stays within its flimsy journey of development, ultimately sacrificing the expected mystery and depth of this polarized character.
Balitagos’ ensemble strives to complete Gallimard and Song’s universe, having a couple of considerable performances, though still wanting as a whole. Pinky Amador as Gallimard’s first wife, Helga, shines in her scenes. Amador projects a certain dominance both in character and as an actress. As Helga, she waves an air of control, liberalism and self-freedom threatening Gallimard’s need for superiority. As Amador, she once again proves how such an actress can delve deeply into understanding her own character, bringing an undeniable presence on stage with an interpretation that is only her own.
Ah! And while Amador builds her character, Maya Encila, compliments Helga’s western dynamics as Gallimard’s fleeting mistress, Renee (and the Pin-Up Girl). Encila draws Renee as a counterpart to Gallimard intellect and lack of assertion. Here, Renee brandishes a wit Gallimard longs for, complete with a woman’s body and frankness that peels a mystery he longs to conquer.
Hwang’s M. BUTTERFLY answers our question why we adore the West and why the West adores us back. Through the great barrier that divides both cultures and mindsets, Hwang finds an inarguable string that connects the two. As Gallimard (West) seeks for dominance, Song (Orient) willingly (and should I say cunningly, too) provides the gift of submission. It is power play, dynamic in every relationships, much more between two opposing poles that are both desperately wanting.
But Hwang deconstructs this post-colonial argument further by “making the slave the master,” and this is what makes his material great. Gallimard soon becomes blinded by his need, opening opportunities for Song to further her advances and motives. Unlike Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, we soon finds how tragedy flips to embrace the other player. Is this wish-fulfilment for Hwang? That, I can only assume. But in the big scheme of things, we see how both can be majestic victors and willing victims in this cultural power struggle.
What also makes this 20th century revision of M. BUTTERFLY equally powerful as it’s original draft in ’88 is Hwang’s take on gender fluidity. This time, he – along with his audiences – dismisses the mystery of identity. But Hwang takes it further by posing a question to the letter “M” in its title. See, it could be anything in our spectrum of titles and stereotypes. It could be Monsieur, Mademoiselle, Mister, Miss, Madam or My. We begin to question Gallimard’s sexual orientation, and as Song’s. And as Hwang’s narrative unfolds we willingly flex our understanding of gender, passing fleeting judgements, pinpointing who is who until we surrender and realize that it isn’t as important, after all. In the end, we willingly embrace Gallimard and Song, going deeper into our definitions of sex, and finding the beauty in the spectrum of gender and identity.
This 2018 production of M. BUTTERFLY seems to have missed sending off such thematic depths. It limits itself to the confines of literal reading, brought about by a stockpile of unnecessary pageantry and trivial excitements. Though it is undeniable that this production showcases such an abundance of what our artists can do for the growing theater community in Manila, it shouldn’t stop there. See, Hwang’s masterpiece has so many things to say, and with our limited resources to such literatures, these rare productions would have been a great opportunities for us to understand ourselves even further.