In 1986, a French diplomat was tried for treason on charges he had passed state secrets to his mistress — a Chinese opera diva. In Chinese opera, the women characters are played by men. The diplomat’s mistress of 20 years was a man, and the intrigue caused a national scandal.
Two years later, Hwang’s work premiered — winning Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Best Play. In director Frederick Mead’s skillful hands, we could enjoy this fascinating kaleidoscope of espionage and sexual confusion.
The play starts with ex-diplomat Rene Gallimard (Michael Cahill) alone in his cell in a prison on the outskirts of Paris. To his amazement, he has become a celebrity. Society types yuk it up over his fate: How could he not have known his mistress was actually a mister? Gallimard comforts himself that he once knew and was loved by the most perfect of women.
The play then flashes back to Peking and his meeting with the lovely Song Lilling (Joshua Smith). She sings the death scene from Madame Butterfly, when Butterfly commits hara-kiri with a dagger because “a death with honor is better than life without honor.”
Gallimard approaches her, but Lilling treats him with disdain. She considers Puccini’s idealization of the “Oriental” woman as a vacuous Western prejudice, and is caustic about the West in general. Hwang, who is Chinese-American, insists on using “Oriental,” although — or because — it’s politically incorrect.
If you want to know about Chinese culture, come to the Chinese opera, Lilling taunts Gallimard. He is a shy man —and he’s married. Nonetheless, he courts Lilling and eventually she allows him into her house, but warns that her modesty forbids her to disrobe. It’s a natural dodge, as that would have revealed her secret and possibly brought down the final curtain on their romance — unless Gallimard actually knows she’s a man. That’s one of the many unanswered conundrums of the play and of the real-life drama.
Whatever the case, Lilling is actually a spy who is gathering information about American involvement in Vietnam. At one point, when it looks like Lilling’s bluff has been called, she shocks Gallimard and the audience by announcing she’s pregnant.
Diplomat and diva are the central focus of the play. Cahill does an exceptionally convincing job in his challenging role. The same can be said for Smith, both in and out of his kimono.
The supporting cast was also generally strong: Doug Mundy as Gallimard’s high school friend and George Patterson as the French ambassador. Nancy Harman was a slightly nutty Danish visitor, while Suzaune Yee McKamey played Lilling’s servant and a piranha-like Communist bureaucrat.
M. Butterfly is a welcome chance to see a modern classic. Many thanks to the little Shadowbox Theatre for undertaking this large, difficult drama.