Update of Puccini’s Opera a Gender Bender:

Giacoma Puccini’s Mme. Butterfly is the tragic yet beautiful tale of a Japanese woman named Butterfly who falls in love with an American sailor that marries then abandons her. When he returns years later with his new American wife to claim Butterfly’s child, it is too much for the delicate woman and she commits suicide singing, “Death with honor/ Is better than life/ Life with dishonor.”

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly takes the theme from the famous opera of women’s submission and sets it in China in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. It centers on a very mediocre French diplomat, Ren? Gallimard, who, inspired by Puccini’s opera, seeks to find an Eastern Butterfly of his own. He is soon sucked into a passionate affair with his so-called “Perfect Woman,” an actress in the Peking Opera named Song.

So absorbed in his role as dominator, Gallimard overlooks any inconsistencies in his affair. In fact, the affair serves to reinforce his belief in the Orient as a subservient culture that will surely open itself to Western trade and fall to its ideals. But as Gallimard finds out, it is neither the East nor his meek Butterfly that will acquiesce in the end.

Director Tazewell Thompson does well to ensure that the audience follows the convoluted plot through his use of blatant symbolism and staging. In the first act, the strategic foreshadowing abounds as the stage is flooded with stereotypical Asian images of docile beauty and femininity.

Working with a rather small theatre-in-the-round setup, Thompson, in concert with lighting director Robert Wierzel, uses lighting well to emphasize transitions between scenes and moods. The opening image is particularly stark as Gallimard stands in a five square foot box that serves to represent his physical and mental incarceration. Another mode of transition that was not used quite as well is the raining of rose petals onto the stage to put emphasis on specific scenes. Initially a beautiful and breathtaking image, the petals become trite by the time the plot reaches its climax.

Carrie Robbins’ costume designs are hit or miss. Her problems come in pairing complementary colors with the appropriate style. Gallimard’s prison costume, though a drab color that reflects his personality, is little more than a bathrobe that hardly seems timely for a prisoner of the government in the 70s. Stylistically, there was so much to be done in comparing the dress of the East and West, but Robbins opted instead to stick to stereotypical costuming that showed no reflection of the time period. The satin pants of the Communist soldiers are the culmination of bad costume choices all-around.

The performances of the principle roles played by Stephen Bogardus as Gallimard and J. Hiroyuki Liao as Song followed a very similar trend. The first act was very lackluster including simple line mistakes from Bogardus and nauseatingly over-the-top feminine wiles from Liao. However, by the second act, both relaxed into their roles a bit better.

Bogardus conveys the intricacies of his character’s emotions well come time for the climax. He manages to avoid an overly dramatic display of despair, opting instead for the much more appropriate subtle psychological shift. The coolness with which he delivers his final monologue is chilling when juxtaposed with his actions.

Likewise the second act delivers a very different portrayal of Song. Liao finally breaks into the deceptive character that his first act portrayal hinted at so strongly. His much more abrasive transformation is awe-inspiring and the freeness with which he finally exposes his character is commendable.

The inconsistent performances of the leads are strengthened by the comedic relief offered by the supporting cast. Kelly Brady plays her roles with freshness and comedic timing that outshine her lack of experience. Likewise, Brigid Cleary as Gallimard’s wife Helga is refreshingly witty and is able to flesh out an otherwise flat character.

Walking away from this play, the most lasting impression is that of David Henry Hwang’s well-orchestrated theme. In a time when our country is exerting its power over countries with very different cultures, the lesson learned in Vietnam is not far from mind. Gallimard takes the unfortunate downfall for a culture that underestimates its enemy. And likewise learns the age old truth that all is fair in love and war.

M. Butterfly is playing in the Fichandler at Arena Stage until October 17. College night is Oct. 17 at a special rate of $10. For ticket information call 202-554-9066.

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