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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘M. Butterfly’ proves a riveting production

Published: April 16, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Enchanting butterfly: Daniel Gurfinkel ’13 plays Song Liling, a spy masquerading as a Chinese singer who seduces a French diplomat, Renee Gallimard, on assignment in China.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

In their complex and thought-provoking production of “M. Butterfly,” the Brandeis Players provided their audience with an ambitious, searing drama.

David Henry Hwang’s script tells the story of a French diplomat’s twenty-year love affair with a Chinese singer whom he discovers is both a man and a spy.

The play’s primary preoccupation is with what happens when the East clashes with the West, as well as the conflict between men and women. It’s a play about the power struggles that exist in politics and in sexual relationships.

Director Aaron Arbiter ’10 and producer Asya Bashina ’12 unflinchingly portray these topics in their production of “M. Butterfly,” bravely exploring the issues in an honest manner. The Western male characters in the play discuss Eastern women like they are merely playthings to be toyed with and thrown away. One character argues that “they want to be treated bad” and that “they don’t have to say yes.” Yet, this Western presumption of domination over the East is complicated by the fact that the French diplomat Renee Gallimard (Daniel Liebman ’12) is completely fooled and manipulated by his Eastern lover Song Liling (Dani Gurfinkel ’13).

The story is mediated through the eyes of its main character, which gives the audience another layer to ponder. In his French prison cell, Gallimard tells his story to his “perfect audience,” causing reality and fiction to blur together. His memory of what happened in his past confronts the truth of these same events, leaving the audience to be the judge.

Liebman plays his character with the right amount of foolishness, cockiness and naïveté—after all, Gallimard did mistake a man for a woman for more than two decades. However, Liebman plays the French diplomat with an intensity that makes it seem that Gallimard was deceived more because he was blinded by love and his own self-absorption than because of outright stupidity.

While Liebman had the challenge of making his character’s ignorance believable, Gurfinkel had to make the deception itself believable. He convincingly portrays a woman, a difficult task as the audience knows from the outset that Song is a man (the revelation is in the play’s program). Although there is clearly something off about Song—Gurfinkel plays him with an affected and controlled voice—it’s still shocking when Song sheds his kimono to reveal that he is, in fact, a man.

The Brandeis Players did an outstanding job making the set. While the story takes place in the French prison, the set also proved to be effective in providing a background for Gallimard’s memories and figments of his imagination The sparse gray set, with its exposed wooden beams, illustrates a French prison and the production’s use of paper screens proves appropriate when Gallimard is recounting his time in China.

However, what really transformed the stage was the lighting, which often set the tone of the scene and served the dual purpose of helping the audience differentiate between events that would sometimes occur simultaneously on stage. For example, at one point Gallimard, bathed in light, speaks with an ambassador while Song paces in the shadowy background.

Little but effective touches emphasized that the majority of the play takes place in Gallimard’s mind. One clever choice was that Gallimard never wears shoes and is barefoot throughout the entire play. Also, the movement of set pieces for different scenes was seamlessly interwoven into the play. Silent figures in black with Eastern masks held up telephones for characters, creating a sense of unreality and foreboding.

The Brandeis Players’ “M. Butterfly” succeeds on all fronts. Its set design, acting, lighting and costumes are all spectacular, but, most importantly, it proves intellectually and emotionally stimulating.