Monday, October 30, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Altered Views

Opening night of “Madame Butterfly” on Broadway.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

The New “Madame Butterfly” In Our Still-Learning But Certainly More Enlightened Times ... Honoring Alec and Elton ... "Play(ing) It Again, Sam" Around The Country, In Theaters.

“CONSIDER it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy.

“Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner — ah! — you find it beautiful.”

Clive Owen and Jin Ha in “Madame Butterfly." Photo: Josef Astor
This amusing little speech, explaining and mocking the plot of “Madame Butterfly” comes fairly early in Julie Taymor’s new production of David Henry Hwang’s famous play “M. Butterfly” about gender confusion, self-delusion, cultural assumptions and betrayal. It is spoken with arch self-awareness by actor Jin Ha, who is playing the duplicitous/desperate performer Song Liling, to Clive Owen’s utterly naïve (or is he?) diplomat, married, stationed in China, increasingly infatuated with Song. (Song, for reasons never made entirely clear — other than that women cannot perform theatrically — eventually presents himself to his bedazzled dupe as a woman, but really is a man. It’s a fairly grim, politically infused inverse of “Victor/Victoria.”)  This is based on a true and infamous tale.

Back in 1988, I recall being blown away by the performances of John Lithgow as Gallimard, the diplomat, and B.D. Wong as his cross-dressing obsession. This revival, while very well-acted, seems oddly less impactful, and distant.

Perhaps Clive Owen, even with a slight paunch and giving his all to the dialogue that indicates his character is not very sophisticated about women is too handsome?  Perhaps Jin Ha seems far too manipulative to encourage much sympathy. (He is hounded and recruited as a spy for the Communists.)  Ha looks rather like a man, but sounds very much like a woman, most of the time.  It is for us to suspend disbelief on what exactly Gallimard saw or didn’t see or didn’t allow himself to see, through the many bizarre years of their intimacies.
Julie Taymor’s vaunted visual style is evident, and although striking, I found these episodes somewhat distracting, as if making sure we knew it was a Taymor effort.  This production has a heaviness I don’t seem to recall.  On the other hand, how expert is my recall from 20 years ago?  And there’s hardly anything light about the material. (To be honest, so far I think the best — if most depressing — representation of Hwang’s work is the 1993 film version, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone, directed, by of all people, David Cronenberg, best known for graphic horror films. And yet, as Cronenberg’s movies often deal with body issues and transformations, it was not, given the result, such an off-the-wall choice.)
Jeremy Irons and John Lone in the 1993 film version.
As an average theater-goer, which is all I am, “M. Butterfly” hits all the right marks.  I can’t fault either Owen or Ha in the difficult leading roles, or the support of Clea Alsip as Gallimard’s wife, Murray Bartlett as the diplomat’s boisterous womanizing friend, or even Celeste Den as the perhaps-a-bit-too strenuous Comrade Chin, who intrudes so disastrously on Gallimard and Song.

High marks to Paul Steinberg, Constance Hoffman, Donald Holder and Will Pickens in the vital areas of scenic design, costumes, lighting and sound. 
This is real theater and real acting and the audience I saw it with, the night before it officially opened, gave the performers a stomping, emotional standing ovation that did not — as these things often do — seem merely de rigueur; another late night talk show crowd standing for no particular reason, an excuse to stretch one’s legs before hitting the street.

I have no pin-point on why this “M. Butterfly” didn’t seem to soar or flutter as intensely as I seem to remember it did in 1988.  And perhaps the only reason is two decades of increasing attention to issues of gender “fluidity.”  That’s a good thing.  And it wasn’t at all a bad idea for Miss Taymor and Mr. Hwang to do it again, in our still-learning but certainly more enlightened times. I have read that the script has been revised but as I don’t have the original at hand, I’ll assume the changes likely address our altered views of gender-morphing.
David Henry Hwang, Jin Ha, Julie Taymor, and Clive Owen on opening night.
This time around, those issues fall somewhat to the side, and we are more entertained/fascinated by the cultural differences and the characters (and still our own?) expectations and assumptions about Asian culture, women and men.

This is a highly recommended evening or afternoon of excellent acting, provoking writing, and food for thought that will not leave you hungry an hour later.  At the intimate, beautiful Cort Theater (138 West 48th Street).

On November 2nd, Alec Baldwin will be feted at the Paley Center in New York, celebrating his career in TV and radio.  It’s a luncheon, and Baldwin will chat with Steve Higgins, of the “Tonight Show.”  Hopefully, this will be a wide-ranging chat, and not focus exclusively on You Know Who. It’s New York, it’s preaching to the choir.  Before pouting out his lower lip and putting on that wig for “SNL,” there was a whole other life and career — I know, that’s sometimes hard to believe, but true.  Call 212-621-6818 for Tix info. 
P.S.  Alec conducted a very interesting and sometimes quite amusing interview with Barbra Streisand for radio WNYC, “A Visit to Barbra’s Place.” More on that later in the week. 

... ELTON John, is an unapologetically candid and even grumpy icon.  But he has always put his money and his considerable generosity where his mouth is.  On November 6th Elton will receive The Harvard Foundation’s 2017 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award.  This recognizes Elton’s unceasing contributions to the still-ongoing AIDS crisis (it’s not over, folks!) through his Elton John AIDS Foundation.  He truly deserves this honor; he has been a real champion in the fight.
... “RICK, I tried to stay away.  I thought I would never see you again.”  Ah, Ingrid Bergman, gun in hand, demanding those letters of transit from Humphrey Bogart, in “Casablanca.” And as she utters this line, one tear rolls down her exquisite cheek.  I’d say it is my favorite moment in “Casablanca” but was we all know, the 1942 classic that nobody thought too much of, as it was being made, is perfect in every way, and one can hardly choose a “favorite” scene.
Every time I come across this one on Turner Classic Movies no matter where the film is — beginning, middle, even the final scenes at the airport, I stick around for the end credits.  Respect must be paid.

But, if you’d like to experience the glorious black-and-white Michael Curtiz-directed classic on the big screen, you have the opportunity, courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events. 
On November 12th and 15th, the romance of Ilsa, Rick and Victor Laszlo, will be shown around the country, in theaters. Check online with TCM as to where in your city “Casablanca” will appear.  In New York, you can find “the usual suspects” at Union Square (850 Broadway) ... Kips Bay 15 (570 Second Avenue) and Empire 25 (234 West 42nd Street). 

Listen, I still burst into tears every time the delectable Madeleine Lebeau ignores her Nazi boyfriend — she’s been jilted by Bogart — and joins the patrons of Rick’s Café in a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise.” Usually, I’m all alone when the misty emotions start. But on either the 12th or 15th, I intend to make a fool of myself in a crowded movie house.  The lights will be down, but I don’t care. 

It won’t be cannon fire, it’ll be my heart pounding.
Contact Liz here.