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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Sep 17, 2018

M. Butterly Theatre Review: Fabulous Production Values With RS Francisco Totally Inhabiting The Lead Role Of Song Liling

‘M. BUTTERFLY’ debuted in Broadway 30 years ago, winning the Tonys for best play, best direction and best supporting actor for BD Wong as Song Liling. The play was based by playwright David Henry Hwang on the 1986 trial of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot in Peking with Chinese Opera singer Shi Pei Pu who he thought is a woman. He turned out not only to be a man but also a spy. Hwang’s play is a deconstructivist version of the Puccini opera, “Madama Butterfly” and capitalizes on ambiguity at a time when sexual fluidity and transgender roles have yet to be coined by the LGBT community.

In 1993, Hollywood came up with its film version, directed by David Cronenberg (“Dead Ringers”, “Crash”, “Existenz”) with Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons playing the role of the diplomat, Rene Gallimard. It was a disastrous version because the crossdressing opera star, Song Liling, was played by John Lone (the title roler in Bertolucci’s “Last Emperor”) who is not at all convincing as a female and fails to create the illusion that the stage play did.

It was also unfortunate that it was shown after Neil Jourdan’s “The Crying Game”, where the deception, as played out by Jaye Davidson (who got an Oscar nomination), is very successful in
making the audience keep guessing. And after this, Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” was also shown and Leslie Cheung gives an absolutely persuasive performance as Douzi, the Peking opera star.

In the newest revival of “M. Butterfly”, RS Francisco recreates his role as Song Liling, which he originally played in the early 90s. He was young then, more feminine in his slim, slender figure. He’s now in his 40s but it’s quite easy to suspend your disbelief as he totally inhabits the role of Song Liling, once again, giving a much more subtle but more nuanced performance as the gay Matahari who causes the downfall of Gallimard with such beguiling artifice.

In the film version, Jeremy Irons gives a touching portrayal of Gallimard, so full of angst and tortured sexuality. When he asks: “Are you my butterfly?”, we would want to smile but his palpable agony prevents us because it’s obvious he’s experiencing a moment of great and intense pain. The answer he gets is “Yes” and Song is indeed his butterfly in a world (the Orient) which he apparently finds more mysterious and exotic than he should. He falls in love with her/him, forgets his wife Helga, neglects his duties and responsibilities and plunges straight into a mad passionate affair filled with erotic duplicity with his willful blindness. Did Gallimard never got the chance to suspect that his lover is a man like him? The answer is he did not know because he did NOT want to know. He is in love with an ideal woman of his dreams and allows no reality to intervene in his illusion, blinded by his sexist white man fantasies about a slight and submissive Oriental lotus blossom that makes him blind to all the other evidence. It is this self deception that sets up the stage for the play’s dramatic core in which the Asian butterfly emerges victorious, making the play a valid thesis on gender and geopolitics and West over East dominance. Song’s deceit is the ultimate con as he/she understands completely what a white man wants from an Asian and the manipulation is quite perfect as Song succeeds in making Gallimard believe that he is actually the one who is in control and she’s giving him everything he has imagined, something that smacks of imperialism.

Irons holds the film together, both as an odd love story and spy thriller, starting as a meek, low-ranked dignity who is transformed by his escalating obsession with Song Liling who passes all classified information she gets from him to Communist China about the war in Vietnam. Sadly, RS Francisco’s leading man, Olivier Borten, looks so much like a tyro on stage. He’s the play’s narrator. We first meet him in his prison cell, showing off his naked butt, charged for treason. Since this is a memory play, he retreats into the past asking how he got there and who was his lover who he called Butterfly, the perfect woman. He has a complicated story to tell and he asks us to see it from his point of view, obviously wanting our sympathy.

Borten has memorized all his lines, but his portrayal is just lacking in the intoxicating passion that the role calls for, often eliciting unintended laughter. When he tells Song “You’re only in my mind! All this is in my mind!”, we the audience can no longer draw the line between what’s memory and what’s real and what’s fantasy.

When Borten is with RS or with an even more seasoned stage actress, Pinky Amador as his wife Helga, his ineptitude becomes even more pronounced. Pinky’s delivery, projection, movements are all suited for the theatre that she makes most of her co-stars look like neophytes. He also has no combustible chemistry with RS and their supposedly seductive romantic scenes seems so staged or forced, lacking in the spark that will make it easier for the viewer to swallow the unconventional aspects of their doomed love story.

The play is somewhat sluggish and can be trimmed to quick the pacing. Some lines could be
shortened as they tend to over explain. But the production values are just fabulous, gorgeous and stunning. The material’s inherent theatricality is further enhanced by the colorful set designs, using movable giant folding fans that create superb transitions and also serve various intents in several key scenes.

Director Kanakan Balintagos has a firmer grasp of the play as a visual spectacle streamlined with Oriental elegance to please the eye than as a provocative drama about gender and racial politics. Those who serve as propsmen arranging and rearranging the stage are garbed like faceless ninjas with choreographed movement that make them look like they’re doing the Carinosa, while the opera singer who is often an eerie presence on the sidelights appears more like Valak, “The Nun” from “The Conjuring” universe.

The costumes worn by Song Liling are all elaborate and elegant. But the sound system during the press preview is a big disaster, with the microphone conking out totally in some scenes. We wish they could remedy this technical malfunction in future stagings of “M. Butterfly”.
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