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THEATER REVIEW : UCI Meets Demands of Exotic 'Butterfly'

January 27, 1994|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — The entertaining theatricality of David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly" serves up a cross-cultural meditation on the idea that things aren't what they seem. It blends a stylish deconstruction of the historic polarity between East and West with a titillating story of sexual deceit and romantic delusion.

That is a full plate for anybody, let alone a college production. It requires a level of sophistication not just from mature actors with a flair for the exotic, but from designers able to conjure rich and fluid atmospheric effects. The last thing "M. Butterfly" needs is a cast exuding a lack of experience or a setting that fails to evoke the dreamy, sometimes nightmarish sensation of fantasy.

Surprisingly, UC Irvine's School of Fine Arts revival at the Irvine Barclay Theatre more than lives up to the requirements--thanks largely to a convincing, world-weary performance by Alan Shack in the central role of an embittered French diplomat duped into believing for 20 years that his male Chinese lover was a woman.

Even a somewhat inelegant portrayal of the deceptive object of his desire--the bashful yet seductive Butterfly, a transvestite Beijing Opera star who also turns out to be a spy for the Communist regime--seems forgivable under the circumstances and does not tarnish this impressive production.

The jewel-box brilliance of the 1988 Broadway original, with its lacquered, red-and-black Chinese appointments and its sweeping ramp to suggest a post-modern touch of Japanese Kabuki theater, is here translated into a darker, less-detailed setting by scenic designer Julie A. Allardice. But it is lighted to melodramatic perfection by Lonnie Alcaraz.

As he has said many times, Hwang took his inspiration for "M. Butterfly" from a 1986 newspaper account of a bizarre sex-cum-spy scandal involving Bernard Boursicot, a timid low-level bureaucrat posted to the French embassy in Beijing during the mid-'60s, and Shi Pei Pu, the opera singer with whom he fell in love and for whom he made a habit of stealing embassy documents.

Boursicot's espionage was discovered two decades later, in 1983, after he had returned to France and resumed his affair with Shi, who had immigrated (bringing along their purported child). At Boursicot's trial in Paris, when it was revealed that Shi was a he, the diplomat claimed to be thunderstruck. He testified that he had never known his lover was a man.

*

Hwang retained the basic outline of the story but freely adapted the facts, so that his fictionalized drama acquires a larger resonance about cultural and political misperception as well as sexual deceit.

He addresses the issue of Western imperialism and the presumption of Eastern submission in particular and imbues it with thematic insights about illusion and reality in general.

"M. Butterfly" begins in a bleak prison cell and often returns to it as the convicted diplomat, renamed Rene Gallimard, recalls the events of his deluded affair.

He stalks the bare stage under slanting shafts of light, which give him the doomed look of someone trapped in a film noir. And he speaks to us directly with a combination of irony and shame, pride and bitterness: "I have been loved by the perfect woman."

As scenes unfold in Gallimard's mind, transporting us through the past, it becomes apparent that he still believes in the sublimity of his love for Butterfly even as he abhors the ridicule she has heaped on him. "Happiness is so rare we can turn somersaults to protect it," he confides.

With his balding head shaved in a prison haircut and his voice edged like sandpaper, Shack gives a persuasive account of Gallimard's desperate conflict. (He is offering the role for his master's thesis and is said to be a professional actor with major credits behind him. On the evidence of this performance, there is no reason to doubt it.)

Shack has the maturity and subtlety needed for Gallimard. He goes from dry anguish to glib humor without missing a beat--and director Keith Fowler is lucky to have him in the production.

As Song Liling, Gallimard's Butterfly, Andre Evangelista has a considerably harder time--not least because of the transvestite role's inherent difficulties. But we're ready to give him that.

If his heavy jawline suggests a bit too much masculinity for a delicate opera star passing as a woman, so be it. And if he doesn't quite have the feminine grace to deceive us, as he does his lover, we can take that as just one more reason to find Gallimard rather pitiable.

Besides, it is the overlay of the Puccini opera "Madame Butterfly" on Gallimard and Song's affair that holds our fascination and goes a long way toward explaining the enigma of their relationship.

(Gallimard's blindness to sexual reality may not be entirely clarified to everyone's satisfaction, even apart from mechanics. After all, naive or not, he must have known the Beijing Opera historically used men in women's roles, a practice still carried on by the Communists, as Butterfly reminds him.)

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