M Butterfly would have us believe that an intelligent Frenchman could have an affair with a Chinese female impersonator for 20 years without realizing (s)he's a man. Samuel Beckett envisioned such a relationship in Molloy, but only for a quickie at the town dump. It's harder to pull off in the theatre (especially a small one), and playwright Hwang doesn't make the job any easier.
Fortunately, it's clear from the beginning that the only person fooled by the act of Song Liling (J. La Rue) is Rene Gallimard (Craig Stoebling), so it was okay to notice details like Song's Adam's apple (she could have worn a higher collar), cleft chin, and fragile falsetto. But not to be taken in just a little bit externalizes the pathetic potential of Gallimard's situation -- he becomes a joke, and Song becomes a drag queen. (But when La Rue rubbed off his makeup and stripped, it was clear just how much he had suppressed his true gender in the preceding 150 minutes.)
Song pumps Gallimard for state secrets, which he in turn passes on to a government agent (a droll Sachiko Wachi). The Judge (Allan Goodstein) at Gallimard's treason trial asks Song whether his victim really believed Song was a woman. Song says there are two reasons his deception was successful: men believe whatever lies they want to, and the West believes the Orient is inherently weak, and therefore female. This and many more statements sound like strident gender-studies-speak (the play dates from 1988). In addition, numerous self-pitying monologs by Gallimard go to make the play an uphill battle for cast and audience. Song convinces Gallimard at the end that he has been unconsciously but knowingly making love to a man all along, and the effect is to deconstruct Gallimard's personality: he dresses in Song's costume and kills himself, a la Madame Butterfly. It was a close-run thing as to whether the production made that moment not only credible but moving.
La Rue and Stoebling made creditable attempts at their difficult roles. La Rue used fluid movements to suggest his/her trade, and Stoebling hit the lugubrious low notes of his monologs, though he tended to move nervously in his dialog scenes (a distraction in other roles, too). Christine Roman gave a few good comic turns as a couple of bimbos. Mark Muscaro made light work and some much-needed comic relief as Gallimard's friend Marc and as Consul Sharpless. Goodstein was a suitably empty suit as Gallimard's boss. The Kurogo Dancers (two of Gina Caputo, Catalina Colon, Irene Heller, and Leah Schindler) moved scenery inconspicuously, which was a pity, given the need for distraction from some of the heavier elements of the script. Maureen Costello was believable as the long-suffering wife, Helga.
A score of lighting instruments (with no general back lighting) weren't enough to cover the multilevel unit set (lights by Wayne Miller; set by Craig Stoebling). (The set featured an efficient use of wing flats and well-chosen set pieces for Song's apartment, as well as a decorative frieze that extended a sort of mandala on the red upstage wall.) The operators called attention to the lighting by making actors cross through complete darkness. What the lighting lacked in evenness it made up for in its suggestion of moods, and details like projected jail bars for Gallimard's cell. Sound comprised some Asian-sounding mood music and Puccini cuts. Costumes, (Cecilia Smologyi, The Costume Cottage) were colorful and expressive.
The Staten Island Shakespearean Theatre continue to surprise visitors from Manhattan with the depth of their commitment to their art. After 27 years, they don't take any easy ways out, as a choice like M Butterfly makes clear.
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton