That is the conundrum posed by David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly, which is loosely based on the odd yet true story of a French diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, who fell in love with Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer who performed female roles — and who just happened to be a Chinese spy. How could he not know that his long-time lover was a man? How did the Chinese actor get away with it?
M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway in 1988 (two years after the espionage case scandalized France) and won the Tony Award for Best Play. It was later adapted into a film directed by David Cronenberg in 1993.
Critics applauded Mr. Hwang’s play because it was the inverse of Miss Saigon (which opened in London in 1989) where the Asian women were often victimized and deemed meek and submissive by Western males. In Miss Saigon, Kim is a victim of male white supremacy, while her lover, the American soldier Chris, is the embodiment of Orientalism. In M. Butterfly, it is the naive and insecure Frenchman who is the victim of the Chinese actor, who is not represented as the typical obedient and weak Asian. The two plays touch on different perspectives of Asian gender stereotypes, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity.
28 YEARS LATER
In May 1990, the then 18-year-old theater actor RS Francisco played the role of Song Liling, the Chinese opera singer who has a relationship with French diplomat René Gallimard, in the first staging of M. Butterfly in the Philippines. It was a huge success.
Twenty-eight years later, Mr. Francisco, now with a wealth of life experiences under his belt, is reprising the role as Song Liling for the latest re-staging of M. Butterfly in the country.
The play will be presented from Sept. 13 to 30 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater in BGC, Taguig.
Jhett Tolentino — the Grammy award-winning producer of The Color Purple and Tony award-winning productions A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, A Raisin in the Sun, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — is the man behind this latest production, along with Front Row Entertainment.
Mr. Tolentino obtained the rights to produce the play from Mr. Hwang, and during the production’s media launch on July 2, he read out loud some of his e-mail correspondence with the playright. (Mr. Hwang said he will be giving a writing masterclass for free on Sept. 28 at the Maybank Theater.)
Mr. Hwang updated his script for the 2017 Broadway re-staging. Among the revisions is a monologue by Song Liling describing how he manipulated his genitals to fool his lover into thinking he was making love to a woman. But Mr. Tolentino’s production will follow the original script which uses metaphors and more magic.
“How can one person do it? But today we’re being fooled — by the internet of fake news. We’re living in a world of great illusion. In a time of fake news and revisionism like ours today, and the short term memory of Filipinos, [M. Butterfly] is truer than ever, more relevant today than when it was written in 1988,” said the play’s director Kanakan Balintagos during the media launch.
Mr. Balintagos said he was aiming for the authentic, so the role of the French diplomat Gallimard will be done by French actor Olivier Borten, a longtime Philippine resident.
American actor Lee O’Brian will play as Marc, Mr. Gallimard’s best friend, who is portrayed as a toxic man who takes sexual advantages of women without regard to their feelings.
“Authenticity is my intention. I aimed for an all-Caucasian cast where the conflicts between the west and east, the male and the female, the animus and the anima, are visually more apparent,” said Mr. Balintagos.
Also in the cast are Pinky Amador, who plays Helga, Mr. Gallimard’s wife whom he married for convenience; Maya Encila as Renee, a sexually liberated Danish woman who has an affair with Gallimard; and Rebecca Chuaunsu as Comrade Chin, a paramilitary guard who is Song Liling’s friend.
Costume designer Eric Pineda’s challenge, aside from having to be historically correct, was to make Song Liling believable.
“My main task is to create an illusion of Song Liling. To convince the audience that Song Liling is indeed a woman. Ayaw kong magmukha siyang bading, dapat mukha siyang babae. [I don’t want him to look gay, he should look like a woman.] From a man’s point of view, how does a man see a beautiful woman? My role is to tell the story visually,” he said.
Front Row Entertainment and Jhett Tolentino said 100% of the proceeds from M. Butterfly will go to their chosen 14 charities: the Love Yourself Foundation, Philippine Stagers, Teach for the Philippines, Dulaang UP, Trip to Quiapo, UP Samaskom, the Philippine High School for the Arts, the Philippine Science High School Foundation, Hope for Change, Love Lipa Foundation, Pakisama, the Calumpang Elementary School in Iloilo, the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, and Our Lady of Immaculate Conception.
A related project is The Chrysalis, an exhibit of limited edition prints (three each) created by some of the country’s top photographers. Each of the photographers will come up with their interpretation of Song Liling while Mr. Pineda will be creating Song Liling’s costumes for all photo shoots in this series.
Among the notable photographers who will be participating in this photo exhibit for a cause are: Wig Tysmans, Mandy Navasero (she was the first to shoot RS Francisco’s nude photos when he portrayed Song Liling for Dulaang UP in 1990, and the photos landed on the covers of countless publications including the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Asiaweek), Jun de Leon, Patrick Uy, Raymund Isaac, Manny Librodo, and BJ Pascual.
All the proceeds from the auctioned photos will go to the selected foundation of the photographer who took the photo. The 30×40 inch photographs will be uniformly framed. They will be showcased at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater lobby for the duration of M. Butterfly’s staging from Sept. 13-30, and will be auctioned at a minimum bid of P50,000.
Assuming all three limited edition photographs of each photographer are sold, they will each get the chance to raise at least P150,000 for their chosen charity.
Tickets are available at Ticketworld (www.ticketworld.com.ph). — Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman