David Henry Hwang's Tony-Award-winning M. Butterfly was a controversial masterpiece in the 80s when it first graced the Broadway stage. For the first-ever revival of this modern classic, there was simply no one who could do the job but Julie Taymor, the inventive director who transformed Disney's The Lion King from an animated film into one of the most memorable spectacles in Broadway history. And she does not disappoint: the updated script now plays out on a set comprised of ever-changing silver screens that flip down or slide left or fold out and are covered with panels that suggest settings Taymor wants us to see. In this way, a memory play taking place entirely in the mind of a prisoner in solitary confinement comes alive, and it is beautiful to watch.
That prisoner, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat who was stationed in China during the Viet Nam buildup, is played by Clive Owen in a raw, powerful performance that dares us to believe that love is (barely) possible in a terrifically cynical world. The object of his love is someone he first saw in a performance at the ambassador's house: a Chinese girl with a secret...or two or three. Song Liling's beauty and grace attract him and he is caught instantly. Her bold political opinions impress him. And the fact that she is played by Jin Ha, a male actor, tells us in the audience everything we need to know and everything Gallimard denies even to himself for much of the play. This is The Crying Game in China, and since we know from the start that Gallimard is in prison for treason and that he is a national laughing-stock, we pretty much know what has happened. It's the discovery of how it happened that makes the play.
Jin Ha's performance is nothing short of amazing. Forget the female impersonation; Jared Leto managed that. No, what is amazing is the depth of emotion and complexity that he portrays in this man-who-would-be-a-woman: the convoluted and confusing truths (is she transgender? is he playing a game? we can see that Song is being controlled by Mao's military, so how much of this is real?) being shared with us. Jin's operatic performances, too, as we watch snippets of the Peking opera, are remarkably controlled and intriguing. At one point he makes a very cynical comment about why the Peking opera only allows men to play its female roles (only they can understand what women truly want), and the devil of the moment is that we can't be certain whether he's being honest or using cynicism as a crutch. All we can know for certain is that Jin Ha is male—a brief nude scene confirms that—and that Rene Gallimard has never known that about Song Liling.
Owen plays Gallimard as a man possessed: he has fallen in love with a vision of a "perfect woman," and he can't get it out of his mind. He follows Song to her opera and to her flat, finally taking her on as a mistress. He wants us—his imaginary audience—to understand the truth—his truth—about what has happened to him, but even he may not fully comprehend it. And when his imagined Song begins to co-opt his story-telling in order to bring us parts of that "truth" he doesn't wish told, his worlds—both in the past and in his present in the cell—begin to unravel. Owen is the kind of actor who internalizes such confusion and pain; it appears on his face and in his voice rather than (usually) in some grand explosion of external emotion. The scene in which he finally asks his wife (a faithful-to-a-fault woman perfectly portrayed by Enid Graham) for a divorce is a brilliant example. His voice hardly rising above a whisper, his body hardly moving at all, Owen lets her know everything that is going on and that he can no longer live with the duplicity of his marriage. (Graham matches him here: her reaction is completely unexpected and brilliantly performed.)
Taymor's new envisioning of M. Butterfly is nothing shy of a revelation. If you saw the original, this one will still stun and surprise you. If you never did, you're in for a night at the theatre unlike almost any other. Hwang's blend of Madame Butterfly with the true story of the French diplomat was always a dramatic one; in this treatment, it seems even more alive and powerful than it once did. How much of that is the acting, how much Taymor's direction and her vision (along with Paul Steinberg's scenic fulfillment of that vision), how much the brilliant costumes by Constance Hoffman that take us to the 60s and to the opera and to Mao's China, how much the original music and "soundscapes" by Elliot Goldenthal, how much Hwang's own revisions, it is impossible to say. But if you are in New York, this is one butterfly that you should not allow to fly away without getting to see.
M. Butterfly is now playing at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St in New York, through at least February 25. Tickets are available from The Shubert Corporation . Find more information about Chicago plays at theatreinchicago.com.