'Mulan,' 'Butterfly' show true grit
By Ryan Senaga
Special to The Advertiser
By Ryan Senaga
Chinese gender-swapping seems to be all the rage this theater season and Manoa Valley Theatre's "M Butterfly" kicks the trend off to a triumphant, courageous start. Adapted from David Henry Hwang's hit play, the production may be modest, but his words are still powerful.
Rene Gallimard is a French diplomat stationed in 1960s Beijing. He married an older woman more out of practicality than romance, and as illustrated in flashbacks of him with a childhood chum, Rene was never quite the ladies' man anyway. He meets Song Liling, an exotic Chinese opera star, and falls madly, obsessively in love. What he doesn't realize is that the alluring beauty is actually a spy for the Communist government. What he also doesn't realize is that his little butterfly is a man. A compelling case for sex education in schools indeed.
Using Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" as a tragic jumping-off point, Hwang examines the Western objectification of Asian culture, the United States' political relations with the East, and men's preconceived notions of women. As one character puts it: "Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."
The set is minimal, with movable shoji screens serving as walls, but pulls off the illusion of clandestine apartments, opera houses and a Paris jail. Black-clad, ninja-like stage hands configure the screens and help with wardrobe between acts. Exquisite dance sequences, choreographed by Megan Evans from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa's Asian Theatre, lend an air of authenticity to the jingju (Beijing opera) pieces.
With his portrayal of the often clueless Rene, Dwight Martin (MVT's producing director) sympathetically grounds the story within its complex flashback frame (Rene narrates the tale from his jail cell) while making the audience forget how implausible it is that his character could somehow not realize that his mistress is a he — for two decades. He does well with a role so ridiculous that even Jeremy Irons had trouble with it in David Cronenberg's film version.
In fact, the play's main sticking point is Hwang's fault. Although a few lines are given as explanation, one still has a slight problem with Rene — and any gwei-lo in China — not figuring out "The Crying Game." "M Butterfly" may have a whopper of a plot device to swallow, but if one can make that initial suspension of disbelief, it's the bravest production to grace Hawai'i's stages in ages.
As Song Liling, Colin Miyamoto is revelatory. His performance is bold and daring with broad, yet softly feminine, gestures and vocal tones. He could have gone over the top in what is a showy role, but, ironically, he's often the subtlest performer on stage. Even though one knows what is coming, his transformation scene — when he removes his makeup and trades kimono for suit and tie — is spellbinding. And when the controversial nudity scene comes, the actor's bitter "nakedness" is powerful.
MYTH LIT UP FOR KIDS
On the less tragic extreme of the cross-dressing spectrum is Honolulu Theatre for Youth's adaptation of "Mulan the Woman Warrior." The production is aimed at children, but it's not a rehash of the 1998 animated Disney film. (Although there is a talking dragon — just don't expect Eddie Murphy humor.)
Instead, using the mythic Chinese poem as its basis, HTY tells the classic story of the brave girl who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her elderly father in battle. Scattered throughout the play are one-to-grow-on messages like not giving up, filial piety and accomplishing anything if you put your mind to it.
Mulan is also told flashback-style, with a narrator. The concept of jingju comes into the production as well — a wandering troupe of performers telling a tale within a tale forms the play's structure. But the main physical movements are less operatic and more acrobatic, with lively martial arts battles involving warriors and two-headed dragons.
Three actors play all the roles, making speedy costume changes behind dragon-emblazoned screens. (Red lanterns and a mural add to the atmosphere.)
Emily Tam dives into the Mulan character with gusto, cartwheels and sword-waving. In addition to other parts, Chi Ho Law is the cowardly storyteller Wen, and his elastic-faced reactions to life-threatening situations had the audience in stitches. Hermen Tesoro Jr. transforms from Mulan's hunchbacked father to Auntie Wu with the Princess Leia-gone-wild hairstyle to Master Yee with "Kill Bill"-ish fingertip-martial arts moves.
While adults may be innocuously amused, children will love it. Much of the dialogue is punctuated by bows, cymbals and the phrase "Have a nice day." And watching the earnest production does make sure you do.
Correction: “M. Butterfly” played on Broadway. The Web site for Manoa Valley Theatre is manoavalleytheatre.com. A previous version of this story misstated the theater’s Web site and incorrectly said the show played off-Broadway.