Never one to shy away from deep issues, talented playwright David Henry Hwang fits enough ideas into “M. Butterfly” to fill a dozen shows. With a top cast and excellent direction and design, the current Guthrie Theater production manages to give the show’s complex meditation on race and gender all the room it needs to breathe and work its way into the mind and heart.
Hwang takes a real-world case, where a young French diplomat carried on a two-decade relationship with a Chinese opera singer. During the relationship, he passed on hundreds of secrets, while claiming to never sussing out the biggest one: His lover was a man.
The playwright, however, had no interest in creating an on-stage documentary of the case. Instead, he spins his own interpretation of what happened, using it all as a springboard to look at how Westerners perceive Asians, especially Asian women. He uses the opera “Madama Butterfly” as a reference point, showing — in part — that perceptions haven’t changed all that much over the past century.
Diplomat Rene Gallimard has never had much luck at love, and, although married, the 39-year-old really isn’t happy. While stationed in Beijing, he becomes intrigued by Song Liling, an opera singer he first sees at a diplomatic reception. A slow courtship begins with Rene eventually falling in love. Not all is as it seems, of course. Song is a man, and the government tolerates his affairs only as a spy, with Rene as the unknowing sap.
The play moves back and forth through time, told within Rene’s mind while imprisoned when the affair is finally made public. Along the way, Hwang doesn’t let Rene’s perceptions about China and its people go without comment, especially as Song — whom the Frenchman thinks of as his “butterfly” — is seen more and more as a man.
Director Peter Rothstein, who has usually worked on a smaller scale in his work with Theatre Latté Da, stretches the stage to fill the entire thrust, from a back-of-the-hall proscenium — where scenes from the opera are sometimes played out — to several striking love-making scenes played front and center. Rothstein and designer Allen Moyer freely mix these moments, giving the already dense work several extra layers.
At the center of all this are actors Andrew Long as Rene and Randy Reyes as Song. Reyes needs to play two characters in a single body, and slowly makes more and more distinctions between the fantasy woman and the real man. Long’s challenge is even deeper. Rene is not just an absolute cad, but he’s also a fool and — by his own admission — not the brightest in the bunch. Long encompasses all of that, but also shows us Rene’s depth, especially at the end as his heart is broken not by the loss of a lover, but the idea of a lover.
“M. Butterfly” runs through June 6 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. Tickets are $24-$60. For information and tickets, call 612-337-2224 or visit online.