David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly opens with high romance in mind, stating a Pride and Prejudice–like truth universally acknowledged: "All men want a beautiful woman, and the uglier the man, the greater the want."
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre keeps the man and the want at the fore of a haunting production. The lights come up on Rene Gallimard, the former diplomat who narrates most of the play from a cramped prison cell. Through fragmented flashbacks of his time at the French embassy in China, Gallimard reveals his unwitting treason and his seduction — of and by — Song Liling, a Peking Opera performer and peddler of male fantasies.
The delineation between particular scenes and times is hazy, suggested at MET only by dim projections and subtle color shifts in Lacey Pacheco's lights. We feel trapped in Gallimard's prison of imagination as we stumble, dreamlike, through sequences and scenes that bleed into one another, filtered through the fog of memory. The staging further muddles the timeline: Recollections unfold in the same playing area as Gallimard's contemporary prison reflections, and repeated interiors are rarely anchored in a consistent place.
It starts simply enough. After watching Song Liling perform the death scene from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, Gallimard pursues her with fanatical devotion. To him, Liling is the perfect woman: beautiful, demure, submissive. She's also, crucially, a man, though Gallimard, blinded by desire, fails or refuses to notice. Female roles on the Peking opera stage once were filled by male performers for a reason; as Liling jokes caustically, "Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."
Robert Gibby Brand plays Gallimard as an earnestly confident man eager to perform his role in the dance for dominance. Despite the character's ineptitude, Brand never stoops to playing him as ridiculous. In his honest treatment of Gallimard's flaws and failures, Brand achieves a nearly impossible feat: making the character's delusions seem more sympathetic than pathetic.
Vi Tran inhabits Liling with commitment and poise, mastering feminine postures and seducing us with ethereal grace. Tran is a skilled and responsive performer, allowing glimpses of authentic vulnerability to peek through Liling's carefully crafted female persona.
M. Butterfly is, at its core, an intimate dialogue between Gallimard and Liling, but a small and talented supporting cast helps flesh out the script. Nancy Nail is affecting as Gallimard's spurned wife, Helga, and Alan Tilson inhabits various supporting characters with precision in voice and gesture. Erika Crane Ricketts, a newcomer to MET, is particularly strong, lending an indispensable energy to her portrayal of the commanding Comrade Chin.
The technical elements are understated, and the pared-down treatment plays well in MET's intimate space. The alley seating configuration mirrors last year's Ragtime, and the bare stage of Karen Paisley's set design offers a flexible space for the play's multiple settings. Minimal set dressing — rehearsal cubes and the odd piece of furniture — keeps the scene changes speedy. Spectacle (and there is some) emerges instead through intricate dancing and fighting, developed through a partnership with the show's original Broadway choreographer, Jamie H.J. Guan.
Director Linda Ade Brand maintains taut dramatic action as she subtly teases out the show's complex themes. In nearly every scene, we watch Gallimard fussing with Genevieve Beller's sharp costumes: dressing or undressing, unbuttoning a coat or knotting a new tie. It's a smart way to underscore plot points on gender performance and on clothing as costume, though it grows conspicuous as a bit of stage business when the actors are given little else to do.
M. Butterfly succeeds, however, in tackling heady themes with a light hand. Over the course of three acts, Hwang addresses a laundry list of sociopolitical ills: Asian fetishism, Western "rape mentality," Vietnam War espionage, the politics of penis size. The play won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play, and for good reason: Hwang deftly intertwines commentary on each of these notions without allowing anything to feel didactic or overwrought.
This is due, in part, to his complex treatment of Gallimard, a man who, when his sexist, imperialist, insert-your-own-ist fantasy is exposed, chooses the fantasy anyway. "We are always most revolted by the things hidden within us," Liling says near the end of the play, and that different universal truth scorches like an indictment. Hwang and MET force us to confront our own fetishes and fantasies. What we do with them is up to us.