My soprano sister used to perform Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” throughout my formative years and I can remember thinking that, even within the pantheon of masochistic operatic heroines that she would portray, that “Butterfly” was particularly absurd and cruel despite the beautiful music. On one occasion, a Navy relative who had married in Japan and produced two beautiful Amer-Asian children even tried to get one of them to play the son who has to come in as Butterfly is about to dispatch herself because her Caucasian husband has abandoned her. The kid would always cry, despite constant and impressive bribes from his real Japanese mother who barely spoke English to do the role, and I remember thinking that the kid had the right idea and that he was more in tune with his ancestral Japanese heritage than either his mother or this goofy Puccini crap. The brilliance of David Henry Hwang’s “M Butterfly” is not only that he understands the harmful Asian stereotypes that such Western works perpetuate, but is also willing to skewer the equally problematic convention of traditional Chinese Opera, namely that females are played by males. Convincingly. Really convincingly. And though “M Butterfly” is now twenty years old, it remains, as BoHo Theatre’s current production reminds us, a work of startling originality that forces us to ask deep questions about how racial stereotypes color our romantic perceptions. You could quibble that the minimalist sets make you miss the visual beauty of past productions, but P. Marston Sullivan’s direction and the phenomenal performances more than compensate. Jeremy Young is blessedly understated and generically Western as Gallimard, which makes his affair, reflections and delusional sense of denial all the more credible. And David Rhee’s portrayal of submissive diva and spy Song is effective enough not only to make you forget which “M” this Butterfly may be but gives you the added ambiguity of making you wonder where his true heart may be. This work still packs quite a punch and raises important issues not only for both East and West, but for patriarchy run amok in any culture. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood, (773)293-0024. This production is now closed.