Highly Recommended ****The Court Theatre closes its 2013-2014 season with the Chicago premiere of M. Butterfly written by David Hwang and directed by Artistic Director Charles Newell, with choreography by Jamie Guan. This Tony Award winning play first opened on Broadway in 1988 and has captivated audiences ever since. M. Butterfly is an exquisitely delicate and aggressively original play about sex, espionage, and Imperialism. Skillfully intertwining the story of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly with an extraordinary plot inspired by true events, M. Butterfly untangles the story of Rene Gallimard, a meek French civil servant who meets the woman of his dreams in Song Liling, a beautiful, Chinese opera diva. What Gallimard doesn’t realize—or refuses to see—is that his “modest Chinese girl” may be much more than she appears. M. Butterfly has become a post-modern classic whose exploration of the sexual politics of East and West continues to resonate today.
The powerful opening scene in the dank prison cell where diplomat Rene Gallimard is being held captive by the French government, and by his own fantasies, immediately draws us in. In the darkness of his cell he tells of a time when his desire seemed to let him soar. It was a time when Song Liling, the beautiful Chinese opera star, touched him with a love as vivid, as seductive, and as elusive as a butterfly.
But what he doesn’t know is that his perfect woman was, in fact, a male spy for the Chinese government! It is an amazing revelation and seems impossible, but it is in this reality that we see the contrast of the sexes in the east and west and how passion can blind one’s senses. In a series of flashbacks, Rene retells of his twenty-year affair from the temptation to the seduction, from its consummation to the scandal that ultimately engulfed them both. His story is a modern tragedy that twists you and squeezes you as it reveals itself. M. Butterfly is a roller coaster of emotions; it brings you up and sets you down, hard!
Sean Fortunato portrays Rene Gallimard as a tortured and anguished man. This is a strong performance as he displays the full range of human emotions and leaps into Rene’s fantasy world with aplomb. His joy, his pain and his torment are felt by everyone in the room as we watch this story unfold. Nathaniel Braga plays an enticing Song Liling, the enigmatic tempter/temptress who ensnares a gullible French diplomat in love and espionage. He does an outstanding job of convincing us of his gender until late in act two when he reveals the truth and then we feel his heartache as he is finally rejected. The large supporting cast (Emjoy Gavino, Terry Hamilton, Sarah Lo, Mark L. Montgomery, Karen WoditschAurora Adachi-Winter, Erin Clyne, and Laura Coover) is very strong and contributes mightily to this production.
Charles Newell’s direction and Jamie H.J. Guan’s choreography are superb. The staging, the timing, the music, and the lighting all fit together like a glove and the actors seem to just flow during the performance. The pace of the show is excellent and the first act, which lasted an hour, seemed to zoom by in only minutes. Todd Rosenthal’s set is simple but effective and the costumes by Lydia Tanji are lovely.
M. Butterfly is ambitious, layered, and complex. Although it is set in the 60’s it doesn’t seem old and the story resonates as if it happened today. The Court Theatre production of M. Butterfly is compelling, explosive, and slyly humorous as it illuminates the conflict between men and women, the differences between East and West, racial stereotypes – and the shadows we cast around our most cherished illusions. M. Butterfly is a powerful production that will grip you for its 2 ½ hours.
M. Butterfly is at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago, IL call 773-753-4472, www.courttheatre.org, tickets $45 – $65, Wed. & Thur. at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Sat. at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7;30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission, through June 8, 2014. Plenty of parking available in the garage next to the theater.
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