Emerging in a New Clime: On "M. Butterfly" (2018)

by Jaime Oscar M. Salazar

▶︎ M. Butterfly, penned by the American dramatist David Henry Hwang, was first staged in the Philippines in 1990 by Dulaang UP, under the direction of Tony Mabesa, to critical acclaim. This helped to launch the acting career of RS Francisco, who took on the role of the Chinese opera singer Song Liling opposite Behn Cervantes, as the French envoy René Gallimard. Nearly 30 years later, Francisco, who has since branched out into other endeavors, reprises his turn as Song for a series of shows produced by Jhett Tolentino and FrontRow Entertainment, and directed by Kanakan-Balintagos.

The play is loosely based on the story of a liaison between Bernard Boursicot, a French foreign service officer, and Shi Pei Pu, a Chinese performer, that spanned about two decades and made for one of the most sensational, even if apparently not very consequential, cases in international espionage. M. Butterfly parodies Giacomo Puccini's tragedy Madama Butterfly (1904)—last mounted at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2012—as part of its larger project to pitch the romance that develops between Song and Gallimard as an allegory for the geopolitical relations that obtain between East and West. The thrust of such an allegory is bared in an early scene that marks the first meeting between Gallimard and Song. After performing the suicide that brings Madama Butterfly to a close before a gathering of diplomats, Song deflects effusive praise from Gallimard with a caustic reply: "It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man."

The realm of fantasy is precisely where much of M. Butterfly unfurls: while the present time of the play finds Gallimard—here essayed by Olivier Borten—in a Parisian prison in the late 1980s, he flits across time and space in the effort to present his "ideal audience" with an account of himself. Having fallen in love with the "Perfect Woman", he winds up as the purveyor of disastrous foreign policy advice, a traitor to his country, and "the patron saint of the socially inept." Although purportedly the orchestrator of the visions that he conjures up, Gallimard every so often finds himself at the mercy of his own imaginings, chiefly those involving Song—his lotus blossom, his Butterfly.

By now, the premise of M. Butterfly is well-known, which doubtless explains the many titters that greeted key moments on the night that this reviewer watched the play: the diplomat is taken in by a diva who is not only a spy for the Communist Party of China, but also a man, in keeping with the conventions of Beijing opera. Structured as a climactic twist in the version of the script that the production under discussion uses—Hwang revised the text in 2017 for a tepidly received Broadway revival—the revelation of Song's gender depends for its wrenching power upon the ability of Gallimard to elicit complicity with his illusions from the audience.

Borten falls short in this regard: his Gallimard is merely enervated and pitiful, not quite managing to embody the blinding passion that he is supposed to be in the grip of, or the torment that ensues when the scales fall from his eyes. As a result, even if Francisco's Song is a sinuous, sensual presence, especially in the lavish robes and dresses by costumier Eric Pineda, little amorous electricity crackles between the two lovers: Gallimard appears overwhelmed by Song's grace and cunning, but not seduced.

This lack of sexuality on the part of Gallimard is emphasized by a minor deviation from the script. During the transformation that bridges the end of the second act and the beginning of the third, Song dons an outfit of studded leather attributed to Jean-Paul Gaultier rather than a tailored Giorgio Armani suit. Gaultier, the so-called enfant terrible of French fashion—and, as an employee of Pierre Cardin, a one-time dresser of Imelda Marcos, herself a butterfly of sorts—is known for his gender-bending, edgy designs. Instead of retreating into the bland, if elegant, conformity of the suit, Song bristles even more frankly with erotic energy before the despondent Gallimard.

The other members of the mostly multiple-role-playing cast are: Pinky Amador as Helga; Norman McLeod as Manuel Toulon/Man #1/Judge; Lee O'Brien as Marc/Man #2/Consul Sharpless; Mayen Estañero as Comrade Chin/Suzuki/Shu Fang; Maya Encila as Renée/Woman at Party/Girl in Magazine; Rica Nepomuceno as Opera Singer; and Pheith Iena Ballug, Ullyses Basa, Aira Jay Igarta, Kay Megan Kierulf, and John Paul Ortenero as kurogo (also kuroko), the black-clad stagehands characteristic of traditional Japanese theater. Of these, O'Brien and Estañero stand out, albeit in contrary ways: the former tempers his cocksure Marc with a modicum of charm, while the latter endows her militant Comrade Chin with spittle-spraying cartoonishness.

The set, by Ohm David, consists primarily of grey-painted panels before which a straight ramp ascends from stage right to stage left toward an open doorway. Acting areas are defined through the arrangement, by the kurogo, of furniture, props, and screens in the form of large folding fans, and through the lighting of John Batalla. In spite of the flexibility afforded by the moveable elements of the set, the fixedness of the panels and the ramp serves to undermine the fluidity and porousness of the narrative, as does the unwieldiness of the folding fans, however visually striking they are.

During the press preview on 12 September, the production encountered a few technical hitches. The music, when present, tended to be louder than the voices of the cast, which was particularly unfortunate for Nepomuceno, but even when it was absent, the actors intermittently became difficult to hear, taking some of the punch out of certain exchanges.

While the ambitions of M. Butterfly to unsettle commonsensical notions of gender, sexuality, and race, and underscore the asymmetrical relations of power that make such notions possible, pervasive, and (re)productive throughout different sites, from the bedroom to the war room, may admit of a degree of general applicability, it is evident that the play assumes a Western context of performance and reception. If nothing else, it proceeds entirely from the point of view of the lonely, awkward Gallimard, who every so often entreats viewers to sympathize with, if not share in, his desire to capture and conquer an Oriental butterfly: a desire that the Philippines has historically been the object, rather than the subject, of.

It is thus interesting to speculate on how staging—or, in this case, restaging—a cultural event outside of the milieu in which it was hatched can lead to metamorphoses in meaning. For instance, in enacting a triangulation between the Philippines, the United States, and China in a moment when major shifts in the global order are taking place, how does M. Butterfly resonate with or grate against the ways in which the Philippines has negotiated its relations with its former colonizer and its new patron? Or, given a national climate where sexism, misogyny, and violence—including sexual violence—are mobilized in political rhetoric and public policy by a macho populist dispensation seeking to consolidate its authority and legitimize its abuse of state power, what fresh significance might M. Butterfly take on? ***

"M. Butterfly" runs from 14 to 30 September 2018 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater of the BGC Arts Center, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City. All of the proceeds from the performances are set to go to some 20 cause-oriented organizations, including Dulaang UP. Chrysalis, a collateral photo exhibition at the same center, features seven portraits of Francisco as Song and is similarly charitable in intent: three prints of each picture are to be sold via silent auction, with the money raised going to beneficiaries identified by the photographers.

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar is an arts and culture critic. This piece was written for Gaslight.