in between islands Inspiration

Disrobing stereotypes at M Butterfly opening night in Dumaguete, Negros Island

Serious stripping in Dumaguete City, the kind we like.

Illusion, desire, suffering…

The themes of M Butterfly, David Henry Huang’s 1988 play took flight at the Luce Auditorium last night in Dumaguete City.

I was a little nervous when the show started with a short prayer. A speculation that played with my anxiety was – how might a crowd who started a show with prayer react to the play?

I realize this morning, gathering the threads of notes from the experience, that it is my own bias that played with me at the start. To think that a standard ceremonial requirement at Silliman University of praying before every event might fuel the flight of the minds attending the theatre was a stereotype I owned as of last night, discarded this morning.

And, M Butterfly challenges the audience on several layers of stereotypes.

Phot0 of the poster of M Butterfly tour, Philippines 2019.

It is not that we aren’t warned. Already as my mind turned to attending with the attractive posters around the country – I first spotted this poster in Iloilo during Dinagyang – I am already initiated into the illusion of the actor’s costume, the thick makeup and heavily ornamented clothing suggesting a play within a play.

I sort of understand the popularity of the play in the Philippines. The layers of cultural and political, sexual and archetypal romp within M Butterfly spares no modesty. It’s sort of an artistic filibuster that through the centuries, has saved the Filipinos from colonialism and imperialism, dictatorship, and other historical barriers to freedom.

No one is spared in the play. Colonialists, Communists, West, East, men, women, comrades, and players in human politics: all the definitions and categories people have conveniently created with these illusionary labels are disrobed with equal force in the play’s commentary.

That’s what tickles the audience. The play is in my opinion a wonderful opportunity for what Tony and Grammy award winning producer Jhett Tolentino aims, “to push for audience development in this country, because it’s not just Metro Manila that we have to focus on” he states in an interview with The Manila Bulletin before the premiere show in Iloilo on 14 February.

But the larger themes are not only what we engage with. The play forces us to chisel off the convenient masks sometimes placed over sexuality, gender identity, domination and submissiveness, sacrifice, love and loss. The fantasies used to cover up these human endeavors are thrown beautifully in our faces and force us to rethink our own illusions.

Because we gasp inwardly when confronted by really real things. As Song Liling (played by RS Francisco) observes, “We are always most revolted by the things hidden within us.”

The audience tittered at times when sexuality came on stage. Yet, a number had chosen to cross-dress for the opening show, of a range of ages, in drag or butch clothing, beautiful in their expression.

The theatre does that for us, too. We are given permission to suspend reality and in the process give ourselves permission to suspend fantasy and dress up in our reality.

RS Francisco reprises his role as Song Liling, which he had first triumphed at the age of 18. Twenty-nine years later, Francisco is just as beguiling in his portrayal of the character. He made us love him as the woman objectified. Like Gallimard, we are seduced by the details of his hands, the turn of his chin, the contradictions of his female impersonation.

We subscribe to the illusion because we want to cheer this character on, and we believe as Gallimard does that “her mouth says No and her eyes say Yes.”

As the character Helga pronounces, “The pretense…was very good indeed.”

Oliver Borten as Gallimard transports us through the illusion that ultimately destroys him. Borten’s stamina is magnificent in his role, as he held the plot from beginning to finish.

Gallimard’s wardrobe was particularly clever. In the first act he starts naked, and gradually as we move through the beginnings of the story where he encounters confidence because he is “loved by a Perfect Woman,” we see him grow increasingly layered – putting on a shirt and trousers, then a tie, then shoes and a jacket.

In the East, his tie is broad with red splotches on it; it makes him stand out, creates a clownish effect that speaks to us of the one white man in the audience watching Song Liling’s opera night after night as he falls in love with David Henry Huang’s “fantasy stereotype.”

Later, in Act 3, his tie is thinner, his hair neater, and he sheds the jacket. In the West, he is less remarkable, lost in the sea of other white men.

When his Butterfly returns to him in Paris, Gallimard tries to recall the power he had once had over the Asian lotus blossom he had co-created in the East, only to be told by Song, “Rene, I’ve never done what you’ve said. Why should it be any different in your mind? Now split—the story moves on and I must change.”

And Act 3 Scene 2 moves toward the revelation that makes the audience gasp and exclaim.

The illusion had held us in the mind of Gallimard’s fantasy, and it ejects us out of the illusions we had created for ourselves, with the play’s help.

Curtain call on opening night, Dumaguete City with cast. Tolintino with microphone and RS Francisco (Song Liling) in robe, Olivier Borten (Gallimard) to his left.

The emotion at curtain call from the producer Tolentino and the actor RS Francisco who played Song for the premiere suggests the challenges that they had faced to bring the play to Dumaguete. The audience witnessed Francisco’s and Tolentino’s tears of pride as we gave a standing ovation. I was touched when Francisco admitted, “We thought no one would come.”

Opening night was packed here in Dumaguete. Because of house dress codes, several people who came in shorts and flipflops had to be turned away. Still, the theatre was at capacity.

I hope the play does well over the weekend. Not only because the proceeds go to charities like the Iloilo Red Cross and foundations like the House of Hope Foundation for Kids with Cancer and similar organizations, but also because it benefits creative councils in the cities on the tour this year.

Although the play is 30 years old, the present remains timely for the themes of M Butterfly to challenge the stereotypes that clothe human expression.

It might nudge us toward the playwright’s vision to “cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception, to deal with one another truthfully for our mutual good, from the common and equal ground we share as human beings.”

Now is as good a time as any to shed the stereotypes that we wear, and strip down to what it means to be human.

And for three hours, M Butterfly allows that.

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