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THEATER / MARK CHALON SMITH : Trying Its Wings : UCI Conjures Up 'M. Butterfly,' a Tale of Sexual, Political Illusion--With Nudity

January 21, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH

In 1986, a bizarre story of sexual and political misdirection thrilled Europe.

A French diplomat was on trial for espionage, but that wasn't the real grabber in this gender-twisting shell game. Bernard Boursicot revealed in court that he had an affair for nearly 20 years with Shi Pei Pu, a male Chinese Opera star whom Boursicot believed to be female.

The amazing deception went beyond the boudoir drag show, for Pei Pu was also a spy who persuaded Boursicot to pass state secrets to the Chinese.

A few American newspapers picked up the accounts, and soon readers in the States were fascinated. David Henry Hwang, the respected playwright of "The Dance and the Railroad" and "Family Devotions," was among them.

He took the tale, changed some names, added a few dramatic refinements and came up with "M. Butterfly," one of the biggest hits of the 1988 Broadway season.

Now, UC Irvine takes on the drama, which has been produced in more than 30 countries and was recently made into a movie starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone. UCI's "M. Butterfly," directed by drama professor Keith Fowler, flutters into the Irvine Barclay Theatre tonight. It runs for two weekends, through Jan. 29.

Like everybody else, Fowler was drawn to the play because it's such a great yarn, a "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" for the stage.

"The historical aspect is just fascinating; I mean, who could believe (the story) if we didn't know it really happened?" he said during a break in rehearsals this week.

"But beyond (the strange facts), it's compelling because it gets us to look at how the West perceives the East (and) how men perceive women, as submissive and mysterious."

During a lecture at UCI in 1992, Hwang elaborated on that. He said his goal in writing "M. Butterfly" was, in part, to dispel the "fantasy stereotype of the Orient."

Gallimard, Hwang's stand-in for Boursicot, believes that Song (Pei Pu) is a woman because he has an image of Asian women as modest and reticent, which allows him to be deceived, the author explained.

Fowler agreed, but pointed out that the relationship also shows just how far someone will go to maintain love, or at least a romantic vision of it.

"Ultimately, 'M. Butterfly' reminds us that we get deeply into the act of courting," he said. "We do have our illusions about what our partner is or what we want them to be. Even faced with reality, we separate from it.

"In the end, Gallimard says, 'I love and have been loved by the perfect woman,' even after he knows (that Song) is a man."

*

Fowler said he's admired the play ever since he first saw it in New York a few years ago. Describing "M. Butterfly" as "an audience-friendly play that combines humor and a powerful narrative with moments of conflict," the director noted that he's tried to be faithful to the script.

That includes a couple of nude scenes Fowler believes are essential to the production. The first involves an actress playing a calendar girl in a fantasy scene. The second, and more important, finds Song stripping before Gallimard and the audience, finally revealing that he's a man.

"We realize that some people don't like them; we've had people call the box office (during past shows) to find out if there's nudity," he said. "In this case, we hope audiences will realize that it's critical to the play.

"The scenes aren't lengthy, and they aren't gratuitous . . . but one is in your face. When Song says, 'You've always wanted to strip me,' and then he takes all his clothes off, it's a crucial moment."

Preparing Andre Evangelista, the young Filipino-American drama student, for that passage, as well as the rest of the play, was also crucial. And not without its grinning moments.

Fowler said Evangelista "is going to be a very fine actor," but reaching his feminine side wasn't always that easy during rehearsals.

Fowler recalled asking a female stage assistant to help Evangelista dress and walk. "She came in (wearing) spike heels and a tight dress, just to give him an idea. Then there was Andre, wearing his two-inch starter heels, stumbling around . . . at that point, I wasn't accepting him (as Song), but now I've come around; he's getting comfortable with a very demanding role."

When it came to Gallimard, Fowler turned to Alan Schack, a UCI drama graduate student in his 40s, who was trained in New York and is a veteran of many regional productions.

*

Like many critics, Fowler didn't like the movie version. He said it had "a 'Crying Game' quality," which tended to ignore the drama's more subtle reflections on gender and love.

He did, however, express hope that the publicity generated by the film might prompt interest in the UCI production. On the other hand, all the attention may make the odd story behind "M. Butterfly" now seem old hat.

"Maybe there's still curiosity about this," he said. "Anyway, this play is better as a play, not a movie. I hope they come in because of that."

* UC Irvine's production "M. Butterfly" by David Henry Hwang opens tonight at 8 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre , 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Performances continue Saturday and next Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2 on Sunday and Jan. 29. $6 to $14. (714) 856-6616 or (714) 854-4646.

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