“M. Butterfly” is a hit for Community Asian Theatre’s 25th anniversary | TheUnion.com

“M. Butterfly” is a hit for Community Asian Theatre’s 25th anniversary

Sean Fenton and Paul Micsan star in Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra’s "M. Butterfly."
Photo by David Wong

Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra’s (CATS) production of “M. Butterfly,” a drama dissecting race relations, gender roles and international affairs, is a successful step forward in the organization’s repertoire.

Written by Chinese-American playwright, David Henry Hwang, “M. Butterfly” opened on Broadway in 1988, winning the Tony Award, and was a 1989 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This is not the Puccini opera, “Madama Butterfly.” Although there are similarities in some themes and allusions—but definitely not subject matter—the playwriting and the cast handle adult situations, language and nudity with aplomb.

The play is based on the true story of a French diplomat, assigned to the French embassy in Peking in the 1960s, who falls in love with who he believes to be a female Chinese opera singer. After a many year affair, he is charged with treason because his lover is a spy and he has betrayed state secrets.

The play begins with the diplomat, Rene Gallimard, in a prison cell, reviewing memories of his life. He desperately wants our sympathy, our absolution, and speaks directly to us, telling of his inadequate youth, his marriage of convenience to an older woman, his love for Song Liling, the opera singer who he considers “The Perfect Woman,” and their ambiguous, long relationship.

The action is built on a series of opposites: Western and Eastern, man and woman, life and art, experience and innocence. Gallimard benignly pontificates the sexist and racist stereotypes of the submissive “Oriental” female and relates it to the opera, “Madama Butterfly,” which Song Liling scornfully repudiates. But the overarching question posed is how well do we really know ourselves and those we love—or do we know only what we want to know? “M. Butterfly” is less radical now than in 1988, but it is timeless in its desires, politics and attitudes.

All the actors contribute greatly to the flow, depth and emotion of the piece—there are no weak links. But Paul Micsan, suitably askew in both deportment and thought, has a star turn as Gallimard, the misfit who prefers, to the end, to live in fantasy rather than face reality. As Song Liling, Sean Fenton is a completely believable, nuanced and riveting performer—watch the stage during the pause between Acts 2 and 3. And Micah Cone, as both Gallimard’s school chum Marc and Consul Sharpless, brings his energy and comic relief to an otherwise intense plot.

The creative directorial team of Susan Mason and Jeffrey Mason did double duty—Jeffrey also designed the effective sound and music and Susan the original choreography. Lighted with dramatic effect by Michael Baranowski, the set designed by Gabe Hannaford is striking yet utilitarian, assisted by the properties design of Katherine Scourtes. The exceptional costumes by Jill Kelly, aided by the remarkable hair and makeup by Sara Quay, articulated the time, place and personalities.

Presented so excellently, this is a production of which Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra can be extremely proud in this, their 25th year. Buy tickets and go—the play runs only through May 4 at the Nevada Theatre.

Hindi Greenberg is a realist, not a dreamer, but does find herself, at times, wondering whether some of her memories really happened or were fantasized. “We know only what we want to know, we remember only what we want to remember.”

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