The characters Song Lilig and her consort René Gallinard are back on Broadway. Their play is M.Butterfly and its tale of a romance between a French diplomat (Gallinard, played by Clive Owen in the revival) and a young opera singer (Lilig, played by Jin Ha). This time out, director Julie Taymor has added her extraordinary talent to the mix, and the result is a stunning revival.
Owen lacks the flamboyance that original star John Lithgow brought to the role of Gallinard, but Owen’s cool and controlled personality has always had latent sexuality rippling beneath its surface, so he makes an impressive protagonist. The actor B.D.Wong achieved stardom in the original production with his brave performance as Song Liling. Jin Ha also manages to be convincing in the role as both attractive male and female. As a result, the play continues to hold us, and the sight of Clive Owens’ Gallinard in despair is even more moving than it was in the original; he seemed less likely than John Lithgow as one who could be so deceived for so long.
Julie Taymor is known for her ability to spread spectacle around a stage with great power, and her now (and seemingly forever) running The Lion King is a constant reminder of that power. She’s injected into this production a good deal of Chinese Opera and we get to see and hear what Gallinard heard. It makes the entire enterprise more believable. With great assist from set designer Paul Steinberg, costume designer Constance Hoffman, and Will Pickens’ sparkling sound design, we have a treat for the eye as well as the ear.
M. Butterfly’s playwright, David Hwang, knows these characters, and he’s given them ideas and language with which to express them. The form is memory in great detail. It’s a most unusual story and it’s populated with others who figure in the lives of the two principals. There are also four dancers to support Jin Ha in numbers that present him as the diva of the Chinese Opera. Clive Owen has been stolid in plays like Harold Pinter’s Old Times, in films like Sin City and on TV as Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway and Gelhorn which examined another sexually complicated relationship. But M. Butterfly gives Mr. Owen room to live and breathe in a long-lasting romance, unusual as it is. If theater is to take us into foreign territory, without commenting on it, this play succeeds. Its production is larger than life, but I found it intriguing, well produced, and impeccably acted.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with an intermission.