M. Butterfly (Theater spotlight)

Andrew Long (Rene Gallimard) in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly
Michal Daniel

David Henry Hwang's thorny puzzle of a play begins in a cramped French jail cell, where former diplomat Rene Gallimard (Andrew Long) has been locked up following his arrest for espionage. That alone is cause for consternation, but matters are compounded by Gallimard's status as a global laughingstock following the discovery that the woman with whom he had a relationship for two decades (and who spurred him to his half-assed spy trade) is, in fact, a man. Some version of this, of course, occurred in real life, but Hwang wisely opts to dispense with historical veracity in favor of delving into the essential mystery of how love can blind one to faults, deceptions, and (apparently) anatomical appendages. Long effectively establishes his character in a series of monologues to the audience: a lifelong nebbish and wallflower who, on a low-level diplomatic posting to China, met and fell in love with the demure Song Liling (Randy Reyes), a performer in Chinese opera. Gallimard's relationship with his wife, Helga (Charity Jones), seems a drab, serviceable thing, and Hwang elaborately unpacks the Frenchman's fraught fascination with Liling as an idealized Asian woman of mysterious passivity. What doesn't work is Gallimard's chemistry with Liling, especially in the early going. Reyes plays the role at arm's length, and while we understand that Gallimard is undergoing strenuous projection in order to fall in love, what precisely motivates Liling remains unknown. Clearly the connection between the two has to be ambiguous, but it's also the glue that should hold things together—and here it doesn't stick. Still, it's a gorgeous production, with Marcus Dilliard's lights painting Allen Moyer's set in all sorts of hues from stark to gorgeously subtle. In one stunning moment, flower petals fall delicately from the ceiling when Gallimard and Liling finally have their first kiss; it's an astonishingly telling moment, full of beauty, cliché, and artifice. As a commentary on, and exploration of, the dance between reality and illusion, M. Butterfly works. But in entirely locating the heart of what happened between our two main characters, it falls significantly short. $24-$60. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis; 612.377.2224. Through June 6

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