Seduction and illusion in UAA's masterful 'M. Butterfly'

Egan Millard
Mark Bautista, center, plays Song Liling in UAA's production of "M. Butterfly."
Photo by Philip Hall
Mark Bautista plays Song Liling in UAA's production of "M. Butterfly."
Photo by Philip Hall
From left: Sara Shipp plays Helga, Mark Bautista plays Song Liling, Alder Rye Fletcher plays past Gallimard and Daniel Alvarez-Lemp plays present Gallimard in UAA's production of "M. Butterfly."
Photo by Philip Hall

In the opening moments of UAA's production of "M. Butterfly," we see three synchronized performers doing an elaborate Kabuki-style dance. We see their precise, enticing movements. We see their otherworldly robes, masks and makeup. We see a scene of poise and delicacy.

We don't see the late-night dance rehearsals, the endless hours spent getting the poses perfect. We don't see the years director Jessica Jacob spent studying various Asian performance traditions. We don't see lighting designer Brian Sechrist focusing and refocusing lights to get the beam in just the right spot, or designer Dan Carlgren trying out different colors and patterns to use for the projections against the row of flats at the rear of the stage. We don't see costume designer Colleen Metzger and her wardrobe crew preparing the intricate robes and perfecting the elaborate makeup so that we don't see another thing: the fact that the lead dancer, a paragon of feminine beauty, is played by a male actor.

"M. Butterfly" revolves around the disparity between what we see and what lies unseen, and UAA's production illustrates that with exceptional eloquence. It's a remarkably difficult play that demands an astounding amount of discipline and preparation. Reflecting on the production afterward, one can only imagine the amount of intense dedication the cast and crew put into the performance. But, as with all great works of art, you don't see the strain, the meticulous planning, the trials and errors. You see a polished work that captivates you in the moment, appearing effortless, woven together seamlessly like a fine silk robe.

First staged in 1988, David Henry Hwang's groundbreaking play draws on several sources of inspiration, primarily the true story of a French diplomat in Beijing who fell in love with a Chinese opera diva and maintained an intimate relationship with her for decades without realizing she was actually both male and a spy, using him to obtain secret documents for the Chinese government. The other major source is Giacomo Puccini's widely beloved opera "Madame Butterfly," about an American sailor who docks in Nagasaki, marries a delicate young Japanese girl (nicknamed "Butterfly"), impregnates her and leaves; when he returns with an American wife, Butterfly is so devastated she takes her own life. But one need not be an opera aficionado to appreciate this play; Puccini's canonized but problematic tale of a heartless Western man and a submissive Oriental woman is told, retold, deconstructed and put back together again by various characters in "M. Butterfly." Hwang masterfully intertwines these two narratives, using each to deliver insight into the other, resulting in a provocative exploration of race, gender, sex and politics.

The play is framed by the timid French diplomat, Rene Gallimard (Daniel Alvarez-Lemp), narrating his perspective from a prison cell, having been convicted of espionage by his homeland. Rene guides us through an extended reenactment of the story, showing us how he (played as a younger man by Alder Rye Fletcher) fell in love with the bewitching star of the Peking Opera, Song Liling (Mark Bautista). As Rene watches Song perform an aria from his favorite opera, "Madame Butterfly," he doesn't realize that Song, like all traditional Chinese opera performers, is a man. Entranced by his fantasy of the perfect Oriental woman, Rene models Song as his Butterfly, even as Song uses Rene to feed classified information to the Chinese. As the plot unravels, the roles Rene has drawn for himself and his lover blur and, finally, switch.

Since the real scandal broke in the late 1980s, the world has wondered with understandable skepticism how someone could be so totally deceived as to believe -- despite a decades-long sexual relationship -- that his male lover was a woman. But if the real Butterfly was as convincing as Bautista, it suddenly becomes clear. Bautista is coy, seductive, enchanting and always firmly on point as the multifaceted Song. The fact that he can fully embody a character with such radically diverse personality archetypes (Song is both pursuer and prey, gentle and cruel, male and female) is the mark of a supremely talented actor. Like the story itself, Bautista's masterful performance simply must be seen to be believed.

He, along with the entire illusion of the play, is supported by a similarly adept cast and crew. Alvarez-Lemp gives us a wistful older Rene we can't help but sympathize with, while Fletcher shows us the ardent younger Rene in the throes of his infatuation. Sara Shipp delivers an outstanding performance as Helga, Rene's emotionless wife-of-necessity. Director Jessica Jacob's cultural expertise and confident vision trickle down to every aspect of the production, always going for the evocative and abstract over the obvious. Zoe Ellis-Yurman's simple but meticulously executed set, along with the aforementioned projections, enhances the performances without distracting from them; as any successful set should, this one defines the ambience of the production, despite being tucked away in the periphery of the audience's focus.

All these elements conspire to produce a show that lives up to -- and perhaps even exceeds -- the lofty demands of the script. UAA's "M. Butterfly" is as sensational a production as you will ever see, one that will have you thinking and wondering long after you leave the theater. Whatever perspective you approach it from -- queer, straight, Eastern, Western, masculine, feminine -- you will find yourself challenged, stimulated and seduced. So experience it for yourself, and believe.

Egan Millard can be reached at or 257-4453.