For over a century, the idea of a romance between a white man from the West and a beautiful, rather submissive and younger woman from the East has held opera composers and playwrights rapt. Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly is exhibit A, with its plot line involving a Japanese woman romanced by an American sailor, only to be dumped when he returns to the States and takes a white wife.
That plot line serves as sort of launching pad for David Henry Hwang’s powerful play "M. Butterfly." It’s been nearly three decades since a Sacramento-area production of the trailblazing, Tony Award-winning play, but the current staging in Nevada City by Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra really hits the bull’s eye.
"M. Butterfly" contains almost no singing, but invokes the stereotypes in the opera’s plot — and inverts or rebutts them. Set in the early 1960s, it involves a French diplomat who is seriously stuck on his idealized vision of romancing a Chinese beauty, in this case a performer who sings traditional Beijing opera (which is nothing like Puccini). The singer turns the tables on the diplomat with ease, playing on his romantic expectations like a violin, or maybe an erhu.
But eventually, the diplomat demands to know if his paramour is willing to carry through on his desire to restage the romance from Puccini’s opera in real life. This gets kinda disturbing.
Layered in with this creepy relationship is a good deal of spycraft and espionage. The French government wants to size up China’s reaction to what the Americans are doing in Vietnam, and the Chinese government is trying to anticipate whether the Yanks will bomb Vietnam.
This increasingly unsettling romance is also suffused with murky sexuality. Without giving the details away, picture this romantic story being told by someone like the androgynous rock star David Bowie, who waded into this very same thicket of European and Asian stereotypes with his popular song “China Girl,” about a similar modern romance.
But getting back to the show in Nevada City: "M. Butterfly" is one of those highly regarded plays that you generally need to go to San Francisco to see. This is apparently the first time in 28 years that this play has been done in our part of the state.
And it’s a really good production, featuring a professional Asian-American actor from the Bay Area in a critical role, and he’s spot on. The local actors acquit themselves quite well, the multilevel set and costumes are eye candy, and co-directors Jeffrey Mason and Susan Mason manage the show skillfully, with tension rising along the way.
Lastly, this is the 25th anniversary production by Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra, or CATS, which is unique among this region’s theater companies. This is my 22nd year reviewing this very creative company, and I always look forward to their shows. You’ll probably feel the same way if you experience this worthwhile production of M. Butterfly. And, incidentally, the trip to Nevada City is lovely at this time of year, with the spring wildflowers in bloom.