M. Butterfly blows audiences away with its energy and twisted plot

Sept. 12, 2004, midnight | By Allison Elvove | 16 years, 4 months ago

Arena Stage kicks off an intense start to its 2004-2005 year

The Fichandler stage is set: plain, with chairs scattered in the four corners of the arena and stairs leading up on two sides of the white-marble tiled floor. Unlike so many of the sets of the arena that are wedged deep into the floor, the French prison cell in M. Butterfly is at the same level as the first row of Fichandler seats. This effect forces the audience to feel right on top of the stage, whether people want to or not. But in Arena Stage's first play of the new season, the audience cannot help but be drawn in by the intensity of the characters' relationships and the complexity of the storyline.

The play begins with Asian music over a dance performance by an individual, known later as Butterfly, dressed in Beijing opera garb. The music transitions smoothly into an aria from the opera Madama Butterfly as the main character, Rene Gallimard (Stephen Bogardus), tells the audience of the opera's plot and its importance in his life. Gallimard explains that through the duration of the play, he will explain why he is in the cell (as visually established by bright white lights shining from above the tiled floor by designer Robert Wierzel).

M. Butterfly twists two classic tales into a fresh new look at the story of a man who is spurned by his lover. Playwright David Henry Hwang uses the opera Madama Butterfly as the cornerstone of the play as Gallimard constantly refers back to the tale of the Japanese woman who falls in love with and marries an American man but later kills herself when he leaves her. Within this plot, Hwang also cleverly intertwines the story of a French diplomat convicted of treason upon the discovery that his Chinese lover is a spy.

Director Tazewell Thompson carefully selects lighting and music to complement the story, which is especially difficult since the plot fluctuates between past and present. The constant changes in time would simply confuse the audience if not for the coordination between music, lights and acting. In the first ten minutes of the play, for instance, French-styled music removes viewers from the dullness of Gallimard's cell to the light feel of a French dinner party where guests poke fun at Gallimard's recent prison sentence. Operatic music is integrated into Gallimard's reminiscing scenes about Madama Butterfly, and then later fades out as the actor on stage takes up the lyrics.

Lighting designer Wierzel, on the other hand, uses an actor's action rather then his or her words as a means to transition between past and present. Once, when Gallimard throws down magazines to the ground in reflection, the lights match the sound and position themselves to illuminate the stage with extreme white light on the floor of the cellblock where Gallimard seamlessly continues his discussion of his conviction. Wierzel also utilizes the four fans on the ceiling of the Fichandler Stage to create moving patterns on the tan-colored floor. Set designer Donald Eastman also keeps the stage sets constant with just a few changes in props such as the use of red and white paper petals dropped from the ceiling, which helps add color to scenes that occur in the past (the happier days).

Costume Designer Carrie Robbins also chooses to remain consistent when it comes to Gallimard's attire. Robbins emphasizes that the memories are told from Gallimard's perspective by having him dress in a robe for the entire play even while other actors change their outfits from scene to scene. In the second act when situations become more serious when reflections are told also from the perspective of Song Liling, Butterfly (J. Hiroyuki Liao), Gallimard still wears his robe though he appears less on stage because these are not his recollections.

The plot twists, too, are nothing less than hypnotic, and even though they are hinted at, the audience may not see them coming. The story is so compelling that it becomes easy to get drawn into what is going on in the present and to forget about what comes next. However, there are a few downsides in M. Butterfly. For one, this is a play with lots of talking, and for those who enjoy action, M. Butterfly is lacking. Another issue is that at one point jazzy music is inappropriately used during a climatic scene in which identities are revealed. The scene is more somber than lively, and the music therefore undermines the intensity of the actions.

All in all, however, M. Butterfly will whisk audiences away to another world where love, duty and devotion are not always what they appear to be.

M. Butterfly is now playing through Oct. 17 at Arena Stage's Fichandler Stage. The play runs approximately two hours and 45 minutes and contains full-body nudity. The next play is Anna in the Tropics which begins Oct. 1 in the Kreeger Theatre.

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Allison Elvove. Allison Elvove was a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Silver Chips Online during the 2004-2005 school year. She wrote more than 70 articles while on the staff and supervised 40 student journalists, editing articles on a daily basis. During her time as editor, Silver Chips Online won the … More »

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