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A passionate 'M. Butterfly'

June 11, 2004|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

How fitting that, 16 years after it was first produced, "M. Butterfly" has migrated back to its roots at East West Players. After all, the David Henry Hwang Theater, where the Tony-winning play is currently running, is named for its author, whose associations with East West stretch back decades.

In many ways, this is a triumphal homecoming. Hwang's play remains a fascinating examination of gender roles, cultural stereotypes and the essential solipsism of personal relationships -- the disquieting fact that one can never truly grasp the essence of another human being. Less triumphal is Chay Yew's bold but uneven staging. By keeping the play firmly fixed in a sort of gray, totalitarian context, Yew sacrifices much of its operatic sweep.

Inspired by a famous true-life incident, the play opens in a French prison -- realistically evoked by Yevgenia Nayberg's dun-colored set, Jose Lopez's glaring lighting and John Zalewski's harsh sound design. There, French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Arye Gross) is serving a stretch for passing state secrets to his Chinese lover, Song Liling (Alec Mapa). However, the part of the case that has sparked international interest -- and derision -- is Gallimard's insistence that, during a 20-year affair with Song, he had no inkling that his beloved was actually a man.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
'M. Butterfly' -- The performances of the East West Players' production of "M. Butterfly," at the David Henry Hwang Theater in downtown L.A., are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. A review of the show in Friday's Calendar incorrectly listed a Sunday evening performance.

Hwang employs frequent references to Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" in ironic counterpoint to Gallimard's unlikely romance. The action, which takes place entirely in Gallimard's mind, ranges from the matter-of-fact to the lushly exotic. Locked in a loveless marriage to a diplomat's daughter (funny and poignant Shannon Holt), Gallimard is posted to Beijing, where he meets Song, the deceptively compliant "lotus blossom" who will prove his undoing.

Gross eventually hits his effectively impassioned stride, but he needs to punch up Gallimard's progression from nerdiness to preening sexuality. Mapa, however, is unfailingly amazing, with a truthfulness that transcends mere drag. Also excellent are Matthew Henerson as a diplomat who uses Gallimard as a fall guy, Erik Sorensen as Gallimard's womanizing best friend, Jennifer Rau as a sexy American who has a fling with Gallimard, and especially Emily Kuroda as a Maoist ideologue intent on Song's "rehabilitation."

Nayberg's colorful costumes aside, the deliberately ugly design, coupled with Yew's often plodding realism, undermines the play's exoticism and humor. But Hwang's lyrical, satirical parable is enduringly moving and appealing.


'M. Butterfly'

Where: East West Players' David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., L.A.

When: Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: July 18

Price: $33-$38

Contact: (213) 625-7000, Ext. 20

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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