Truth is stranger than fiction, and love can be even weirder than that, as David Henry Hwang shows us in his tale of seduction, obsession and espionage “M. Butterfly,” playing through June 8 at South Coast Repertory.
“M. Butterfly” takes us to Peking (Beijing) during the Cultural Revolution of the late ’50s and a few decades after, where French diplomat René Gallimard likes to escape the messiness of reality with a stage show.
One fateful night, he goes to the Peking opera and is so captivated by the heroine of “Mme. Butterfly” that he arranges to meet the singer. This is the beginning of a 20-year affair with Song Liling, during which the married René will not guess that his Butterfly is a man.
It may sound absurd, but it’s based on a true story in which diplomat Bernard Bouriscot and Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu had a 20-year love affair, and the latter turned out to be not only male but a spy for China.
Director Desdemona Chiang has found an excellent cast to tell this unusual story. Lucas Verbrugghe brilliantly plays unhappily married diplomat René Gallimard, who seems to spend more time drinking and ogling women with lusty old college friend Marc (Aaron Blakely) than at home with wife Agnes (Nike Doukas).
Blakely’s excellently-played Marc is both amused and alarmed by his friend’s obsession, but can only stand by and watch.
Swirling through this soap opera is Melody Butiu, superb as a member of the Red Guards tasked with keeping Song in line.
Things really get out of hand when Song claims to be pregnant. At that point Rene’s boss Toulon (Stephen Caffrey), the French ambassador, sends him back to France, where he will be tried for treason.
Ralph Funicello’s spare set design works well to convey the starkness of the political situation in China and the barrenness of Gallimard’s life before Song.
Sara Ryung Clement’s colorful costumes and Josh Epstein’s somber lighting make dramatic points, as does Andre J. Pluess’ sound design and original music.
The Tony-winning “M. Butterfly” is a strange but fascinating tale of what can happen when the emptiness of reality leads someone to fall in love with a lie.
“M. Butterfly” plays through June 8, 2019 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm
Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org