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THEATER REVIEW : Plaza Players Look at Love, Stereotypes : Production of 'M. Butterfly' combines a strong cast with intriguing material.

July 29, 1993|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Frequently the most daring--if not always the best--non-collegiate dramatic company in Ventura County, the Plaza Players score on both counts in their current production of David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly." The Players' founder and artistic director, Michael Maynez, has put together his best combination of cast and material in the last several years, and "Butterfly" deserves to be a big hit.

Rene Gallimard, a French career diplomat, narrates the story, a series of flashbacks, from his cell; he's been imprisoned for feeding information to a Chinese spy. Stationed in China in the early '60s, he fell in love with a Chinese actress who turned out to be better at her craft than Gallimard--in his own description "the patron saint of the socially inept"--realized. That the actress, Song Liling, was gathering information for the Maoist government was only part of the deception.

Gallimard, a devoted fan of "Madame Butterfly," is so enamored with the idea of obtaining his own submissive Chinese mistress, like the 1904 Puccini opera's Cio-Cio San, that he loses sight of what's really going on around him.

Along the way, Hwang--30 when this play was written--comments on the nature of love, offers a perspective on the Vietnam War, and destroys a cultural stereotype or two. While ultimately tragic, the play is also very funny.

Hwang's angry reaction to the depiction of Chinese women in "Madame Butterfly" and other Western fiction caused more stir when his play debuted in 1988 than it will today; while the gimmick is now familiar to anyone who's seen (or heard about) the recent hit film "The Crying Game," Hwang's imagination and craftsmanship remain undiminished by the passage of time.

Hugh McManigal stars as Gallimard, the role created on Broadway by John Lithgow. McManigal is believable in a part that requires much from the actor and his audience: He must make us believe that such a relationship could develop, and the audience must accept the premise without question.

J.M. Barrett portrays Song Liling, the actress with a secret or two; it's a less spectacular performance than B.D. Wong's in the Broadway version (or Jaye Davidson's in "The Crying Game," for that matter) but the part is devilishly hard to cast properly, and Maynez and Barrett do themselves proud under the circumstances--is that vague enough to intrigue you?

Effective, too, are Michael Matthews as Rene's jocular friend; Michael McDermit as a higher-ranking diplomat; Claire Wilson as a Chinese military functionary; Tracey Maron-Anthony as Gallimard's wife; and Natalie Holcomb as a lusty student who also becomes Gallimard's mistress--and who is given several of Hwang's best lines.

Andrew Walters appears as a warrior who assists here and there; he's sort of an onstage stagehand.

Steve Aguilar designed the lovely and effective stage set, with costumes credited to Marlene Reinhart, Audrey Knight and the downtown Ventura stores Battlefield Surplus and Wisteria.

"M. Butterfly" is not fare for children, so leave the tots at home--or let the older ones come separately, so you won't be embarrassed when they laugh at things you'd rather they didn't understand.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"M. Butterfly" continues on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights through Sept. 4 at the Plaza Players Theater, 34 N. Palm St. in Ventura; performances are at 8. Tickets are $7 on Wednesdays, $9 on Fridays, and $10 on Saturdays. For reservations or further information, call 643-9460.

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