South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, has staged a beautiful and moving production of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. The show was first performed in 1988, yet its exploration of identity, and the lies we tell ourselves and others in its construct, is extremely relevant in 2019.
M. Butterfly is presented primarily in retrospect from the point of view of its “protagonist,” René Gallimard, a disgraced French diplomat who is in prison for treason. His narrative is occasionally interrupted, to his dismay, with interjections from the object of his affection (obsession?), “Butterfly.” The story begins in mid-century China and ends in 1980s France, and the gorgeous costumes effectively convey the when and where against a fairly minimalist set.
As the two relate the story of their relationship and the forces affecting it from the outside, René’s career and China’s cultural revolution, René emerges as a prototype for the unreliable narrators so popular today. He doesn’t have the luxury of autonomy in shaping the audience’s understanding of what happened, though, as Butterfly actively corrects the record and the other characters all have moments in which they criticize René’s foolishness and delusions.
I saw this play for the first time when I was a teenager, and most of it went completely over my head. I walked away with a few strong impressions, but retained almost nothing of the cultural moment it brings to life. This time, I was struck by the uncomfortably accurate illustration of Western arrogance in Asia during the Vietnam era and appreciated the impact of the play’s messages about how easily the “vulnerable” can deceive the “strong” by telling them what they want to hear.
The show is based on true events, and if you aren’t familiar with its specifics and twists, I won’t ruin them for you here. I will only say that Jake Manabat is wonderful as Song Liling and Lucas Verbrugghe is pitch-perfect in his frustrating aversion to reality as René Gallimard. I hope director Desdemona Chiang, making her SCR debut, will be back again soon, and that I’ll recognize Sara Ryung Clement‘s costume design in future SCR shows.
M. Butterfly plays at South Coast Repertory Theatre until June 8, 2019. Tickets are available now at SCR.org.