David Henry Hwang’s East-meets-West drama M. Butterfly (★★★★) twists and coils so cleverly, the play might be dangerous in uncertain hands. There would seem to be countless ways to mishandle the Tony-winning fusion of Butterfly lore and the stranger-than-fiction true story of a French diplomat embroiled in a scandalous affair with a gender-disguised Chinese performer.
Yet, Everyman Theatre’s well-calibrated new production, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, succeeds with a skillful elegance that belies just how complex the power dynamics are between the fallen diplomat, Rene Gallimard (Bruce Randolph Nelson), and his Beijing mistress, Song Liling (Vichet Chum).
Although both lovers relate their desires and schemes to the audience, the play proceeds predominantly via Rene’s narration, delivered from within a prison cell. It’s a compelling story in the hands of Nelson, a rapturous storyteller who forges a practically conspiratorial kinship with the audience, right from Rene’s first rose-colored recollection of meeting Liling at the ambassador’s residence in Beijing.
Rene happens to be in the audience that night to see Liling perform the death scene of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. As the opera’s Ciocio-san, Liling is an exquisitely delicate and vulnerable blossom. Rene declares her “the perfect woman.” Little does he know her truth. Or does he? Having first encountered her performing a fictional version of his fantasy of total romantic supplication, he almost can’t help himself. Immediately, and compulsively, he pursues her.
It might first appear that Rene is a self-satisfied chauvinist, who cheats on his wife, Helga (Deborah Hazlett), and mistreats his mysterious mistress, a star of the Peking Opera. But, like the upper hand in Rene and Liling’s fraught relationship, sympathies shift sharply and swiftly as Cold War-era espionage and coordinated deception enter the plot, which unfurls over decades.
The real secret between the couple, suggested beautifully by Nelson and Chum’s rapport, is that gender might have no bearing on Rene and Liling’s true feelings for each other. Each wants and needs something so desperately (or selfishly), they’re willing to overlook glaring inconsistencies in the packaging to get what they want.
Their dance is bittersweet, and Nelson and Chum find truth in it, while rendering full-bodied portrayals of two inveterate liars. Hazlett, as Rene’s fairly self-deluding wife, adds another layer of tender humanity, with Katharine Ariyan bringing a bright, comic energy to her brief turn as Rene’s other mistress. Ariyan and Yaegel T. Welch, both performing multiple supporting roles, contribute admirably to the show’s playful spirit.
Occasionally the humor, delivered just a beat shy of a rimshot, feels out-of-step with the sophistication of Hwang’s story, the design of Yu-Hsuan Chen’s sets, and Eric Abele’s lovely costumes. The production is in most aspects bold yet tasteful, a quality exemplified by a pair of nude scenes, and by Jay Herzog’s lighting, which helps shape one powerful onstage transformation, and capture the lingering image — after Liling’s identity is revealed — of her costume crumbled on the floor like a corpse.
Flirting with life and death, imperialism and independence, fantasy and fetish, M. Butterfly offers a sexually and racially charged reversal of what Rene refers to as the comforting fiction about the passive Oriental and the cruel Westerner. Of course, that’s what this is and what it isn’t.
Led by Lincisi’s sensitive direction, and Nelson’s astute performance, the production tells a complete story that, as much as it dissects stereotypes about warring nations and cultures, reveals a man who’s recognizably, woefully at war with himself.
IN CORDELIA LYNN’S INTENSE 2015 drama Lela & Co. (★★★½}, the titular heroine fights a war not within herself, but almost entirely by herself, as she perseveres through brutal, demoralizing circumstances.
Director Rick Hammerly’s stark, emotionally raw staging of the play, in a new production at Factory 449 Theatre, artfully suggests more violence and suffering than it depicts. But this first-person account of survival during wartime still packs quite a wallop.
Born during a storm, Lela enters into a life that’s turbulent from the start. She’s raised in a house full of women, save for her stern father (Renaldo McClinton), and is but a teenager when her family marries her off to a man she barely knows. This virtual stranger, also portrayed by McClinton, takes Lela from her home in a mountain village to live on the other side of a hostile border in a bomb-ridden city.
Stuck in an unfamiliar country, she endures the natives’ aggressive hostility towards people of her homeland, and suffers far worse at the hands of her husband, who holds her captive, beats her, and eventually traffics her to one or more johns per night. The grim litany of indignities forced upon Lela — who might be a girl in Africa, or the Middle East, or elsewhere — could dull the drama’s potency to a relentless, numbing ache were it not for the moving performance of five-time Helen Hayes Award nominee Felicia Curry.
Though the play pointedly avoids locating the action in one nation or another, Curry is so precise in her portrayal as to fully register her Lela’s malleable adolescent intelligence and buoyant personality. She draws her audience into Lela’s tragic, miserably constricted existence without sacrificing the girl’s innate strength.
Lela’s smiling snake of a husband would have her believe she’s “ugly, unwanted, unlovable, and alone.” Curry ensures we instead see the indomitable young woman who describes herself, with endearing good humor, as a flower on a dungheap.
Curry’s onstage partner McClinton — who largely creates the well-populated world of Lela’s family, husband, abusers, and one debatably true friend — especially shines in the role of a foreign soldier who offers some thin lifeline of hope to the poor girl during her darkest times. However, neither he nor the text do enough to firmly distinguish the voices and intentions of the play’s many disparate characters. It doesn’t help in that regard that foreign soldiers and uneducated villagers alike, including Lela, all speak with uncommon erudition.
The set, composed of stony rubble arranged just so, along with mattresses and box springs stripped down to form walls of coils and wires, doesn’t much distinguish Lela’s world, either. The naked springs and piled blocks provide a literal structure for set designer Greg Stevens’ rendering of Lela’s confinement, yet the surroundings don’t express any really illuminating sense of place for this particular military conflict.
William D’Eugenio’s lighting and Tosin Olufalabi’s sound design contribute as much to the atmosphere, evoking the sleepless nights and felled buildings that so torment Lela. From the rubble, she indeed rises like a flower, fragile yet somehow durable. Curry assuredly conveys the girl’s determination to defend her mind, body, and spirit against unfathomable cruelty. Her embattled metamorphosis complete, Lela emerges a true and inspiring survivor.
Lela & Co. runs until October 1 at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E. Tickets are $22. Call 202-335-9449, or visit lelaandco.brownpapertickets.com.
M. Butterfly runs until October 8 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore. Tickets are $10 to $65. Call 410-752-2208, or visit everymantheatre.org.
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