By Jenn McKee, EncoreMichigan.com
The inherent challenge of David Bowie's hit song "China Girl" – which plays when the lights go up on the Jewish Ensemble Theatre's production of "M. Butterfly" – is that it offends you while also being an irresistibly catchy song.
For this reason, it's a wholly apropos close to David Henry Hwang's stereotype-deconstructing, Tony-winning play, which tells the strange tale of a married French diplomat, Rene (Glen Allen Pruett), who has an affair with a Chinese opera singer, Song Liling (Tae Hoon Yoo), for 20 years before discovering that not only is his lover a spy, but a man. (The story was inspired by a real case that made headlines.)
Given the story's time frame, it's perhaps no surprise to learn that the play jumps around in time. Beginning with Rene in a Paris jail cell, the play works to explain how he got to there, going back to Rene and Song's first meeting in China.
Hwang's play is sophisticated and smart, but the very complexities that make it stand apart from others also make it a bear to stage. In the first act, for instance, there's a good bit of expositional information coming at the audience at a brisk clip, and scenes and locales change quickly – all of which is to say, if you go to the show, hang on tight. (Director Arthur Beer and his cast do a fairly decent job with the material, but at times, the transitions are so quick you might be temporarily disoriented and feel you're struggling to absorb it all.)
Plus, the two hours-plus play is, not surprisingly, dialogue-dense, with Rene on stage nearly throughout the play. (Pruett had a couple of rough spots, in terms of lines, on opening night.) Hwang manages to include close examinations of racial/ethnic/regional stereotypes; the role they play in world politics; gender definitions; and the blurred lines of sexuality, all by way of this unusual tale.
And while JET's production is decent, I wouldn't categorize it as a knockout, despite the fact that it has several things going for it.
In supporting roles, Andrew Huff, Cara AnnMarie and Phil Powers give the non-love-affair scenes a spark. They each play multiple roles, but Powers' smilingly unctuous depiction of Rene's boss, and AnnMarie scene-stealing take on an American college student in China, are highlights.
Mary Copenhagen's costume design, with a couple of minor exceptions (like Helga's uncomfortable-looking jumpsuit), is thoughtfully appropriate, and sometimes even beautiful. Jon Weaver's lighting design helps the audience make all the jumps in time while also setting each scene's mood; and set designer Sarah Tanner manages to evoke numerous locales with translucent, movable screens and effective use of Chelsea Burke's props.
The production's central tone, however, keeps it from reaching its full potential.
Pruett's Rene certainly seems like a man who's enjoying the fruits of being a white, Western man of some power in China, but he doesn't seem like a man consumed by erotic desire. The scenes between him and Yoo play out like the sentimental melodrama of opera – deliberately, since it is through this medium that they meet, and Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" acts as a cultural blueprint for the whole play – but in these moments, there's no palpable heat coming off the stage.
Watching Yoo in scenes where Song is more truly her/himself is exciting, by contrast to the role we see him playing with Rene throughout; but their scenes together feel restrained, and the dissonance carries over into Rene's scenes with his all-but-ignored wife, Helga (Linda Rabin Hammell). Hammell's a fine actress, but it's ultimately hard to get a bead on Helga because the passion that's supposedly leading her husband away from her feels elusive and unreal.
That said, some things about this play, which opened on Broadway in 1988, feel strangely prescient. Americans viewed China, and the Chinese, quite differently just 20 years ago, and that becomes evident when a college student Rene has a fling with speaks of learning Chinese. "I think it will be useful one day," she said, as those in the opening night crowd chuckled. And then one of the characters lightly suggests that the Chinese could take over the world.
The laughs sounded a little more nervous in that moment.
Jenn McKee reviews local theater productions for www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state's most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan's professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.
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