Sep 18, 2018

[Theater] M. Butterfly (Frontrow Entertainment) Review


I had long been curious about the Maybank Performing Arts Theater that's essentially just down the street. It isn't that big a venue and yet a number of interesting productions have been booking the venue and I wanted to see why.

We finally got our chance with the Manila staging of M. Butterfly, which is one of those stories that we've all vaguely heard about and yet I've never really sat down to explore and experience. And this is fully knowledgeable of the fact that there's even a David Cronenberg movie out there that I have yet to watch.

So it was generally nice to enter this experience not knowing too much about the story and getting to experience it for the first time. But at the same time it meant not being fully prepared for some of the more creative efforts to bring the story to life.

Synopsis: M. Butterfly is a play written by David Henry Hwang and is loosely based on the story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu. The Manila staging by Frontrow Entertainment and Jhett Tolentino was staged at the Globe Auditorium of the Maybank Performing Arts Theater in Bonifacio Global City from 13-30 September 2018. This staging was directed by Kanakan-Balintagos.

The story is largely narrated by Rene Gallimard (Olivier Borten) from his prison cell as he tells the audience about the series of events that ended with him being declared a traitor. And thus we are taken back to the time when he was a civil servant working in the French embassy in China. There he encounters a opera singer by the name of Song Liling (RS Francisco) as she performs the opera Madama Butterfly.

They have a short chat after the performance where he finds Song Liling to be quite the strong personality with a sharp tongue. But the singer also invites him to watch the Peking opera as she has promised never to perform the tragic role of Madama Butterfly again. And as Rene gets to know Song better, he finds himself increasingly entranced by her. But as is the way of these things, Song is not quite what she appears to be.

What I Liked: The show was certainly ambitious in the scale it wanted to achieve - you can see that in the sweeping nature of the set design and the different costumes in the production. After all, a butterfly is a beautiful, ethereal creature and this concept managed to get woven into the fabric of the production from start to finish. I particularly liked the use of large fans as mobile set pieces that both concealed actor movement and also presented different backdrops to match different scenes.

The play is a shocking one that has some pretty bold statements it wants to make about the relations between East and West and the lingering sentiments of imperialism that still creep into how people view things. Many parts of the play are highly provocative and are meant to shock and disturb into order to shake viewers out of their comfort zone and drive the need to really think about things with a new perspective.

What Could Have Been Better: The play tries to juggle a dark comedic tone with a seriously dramatic tale of woe. It's not easy to do this under the best of circumstances and the shift between the serious and the jovial continually created odd moments in the play that left me wondering what the audience was supposed to feel at certain points. When what was practically a rape scene can end up eliciting laughs from the audience says a lot of people's opinions on the matter but also how the direction for the show didn't quite establish the tone well enough.

We watched the show during its opening weekend, which is not my habit when you get down to it. And it felt evident that this was the first weekend as there were a lot of instances when lines were delivered in an odd manner that didn't follow natural breaks in the sentences and of course the many, many problems with the microphones. Thus even the most dramatic scenes were littered with unusual static-filled popping sounds or cases when you'd hear Rene clearing his throat right before he'd enter  a scene or how the sounds of their elaborate outfits brushing against their receivers. These moments constantly broke the illusion of the stage and killed the mood a lot of times.

TL;DR: M. Butterfly is still a powerful play with a strong message but some admittedly confusing scenes and visuals at the same time. It's not an easy play to fully appreciate but the team certainly did their best to do the source material justice. Thus the play gets a good 3 costume changes for Song Liling out of a possible 5.


1 comment:

  1. Worst play for 1000 years IMO. Very sad as I was hoping it would live up to the hype. Walked out halfway through, and wanted to leave well before that but did not want to be rude.

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