Theater Review: ' M. Butterfly'

Ben Miles

Though David Henry Hwang’s play, “M. Butterfly,” is much associated with Puccini’s 1904 opera, “Madama Butterfly,” it is primarily a fictionalized account of the true-life romantic pairing of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Perking Opera diva Shi Pei Pu. “M. Butterfly” debuted on Broadway in 1988 – with John Lithgow and B.D. Wong in the lead roles; that production won the Tony Award for Best Play.  “M. Butterfly” was briefly revived on Broadway in 2017 and starred Clive Owen and Jin Ha characterizing the protagonist and antagonist, respectively, of the drama.

Now “M. Butterfly” graces South Coast Rep’s Segerstrom Stage through June 8 and under the colorfully stylized direction of Desdemona Chiang, “Butterfly” is a complex take by playwright Hwang on the phantasmagoric tale of French diplomat Rene Gallimard’s obsession with Song Liling (Lucas Verbrugghe performing as Gallimard with boyish naivety). Gallimard is mesmerized by Song Liling’s staged embodiment of “Madama Butterfly” (a taut Jake Manabat is Song Liling in this gender-ambiguous role). Indeed, the diplomat becomes infatuated with Song Liling’s femininized masculinity.

With a re-write by Hwang since “Butterfly’s” initial New York staging, the current emphasis of the play is not so much on the mystery of Song Liling’s gender – from the outset of the show there’s little doubt that Song Liling is a male portraying a female – as it is on the issue of cultural imperialism, dominance, subjugation and the differing values of oriental and occidental lifestyles.

“M. Butterfly” – at about two hours in length (with one 15-minute intermission) – is a sprawling narrative that ranges geographically from Paris to Beijing and in time from the 1950s to the 1980s.

It is adorned with intricately designed costumes by Sara Ryung Clement (when Song takes on the role of “Butterfly,” he must dress in lavish feminine clothing and accoutrements in an attempt to disguise his true sex); a minimalist scenic design by Ralph Funicello, which cleverly serves as an opera stage, a bar, a courtroom and a prison cell; sound design and original music by Andre J. Pluess; a subtlety nuanced lighting design by Josh Epstein; and elaborate but precise choreography by Annie Yee.

In addition to Verbrugghe and Manabat’s daring performances (Manabat literally stands naked before us at the play’s climax), other supporting players add strength to this “Butterfly” – including Aaron Blakely, Melody Butiu, Stephen Caffrey, Nike Doukas and Juliana Hansen.

“M. Butterfly” continues on the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Rep through June 8.

The show plays Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8 p.m. Matinees are on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

SCR is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 92628.

For reservations call (714) 708-5555. For online ticketing and further information visit


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