M. Butterfly’s Squeaky Stage and Awkward Lead Make This Geisha a No No

Theater director Damon Dering has wanted to produce David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly for nearly two decades. He first fell in love with the play "sometime before 1991," he tells us in his director's notes for the production that his company, Nearly Naked Theatre, has recently unveiled. Dering has, he writes, read this play, about a Chinese opera singer who impersonates a woman in order to steal secrets from a French diplomat, upwards of a hundred times. It's been on his list of top three plays to produce ever since he launched Nearly Naked 10 years ago.

What's kept Dering from doing Hwang's controversial play? He's never found the right actor to play Song Liling, the story's titular "Butterfly." Numerous casting calls netted no one willing or able to wear whiteface and various kimonos convincingly — that is, until Dering met Thomas Isao Morinaka, his Song Liling in this production.

How ironic, then, that it is leading man David Weiss (who has appeared in or worked on most if not all of Nearly Naked's productions over the past several years) who walks off with this production, and not Morinaka, whose impersonation of a geisha is fey and awkward and never catches on.

Weiss appears in nearly every scene of Hwang's long three-act, and he's never anything but perfect in the rangy role of a homely, oafish fellow who's been unlucky in love. Weiss' Rene Gallimard is just dopey enough to make it likely that he had an affair of long duration with a man he believed to be a woman. He plays Gallimard as a dullard, but never a dunce; his comic line readings are as dry as toast, which makes them even funnier; his dramatic scene is neatly parsed and loudly passionate.

The supporting cast is mostly unimpressive, with the exception of Wes Martin, whose large talent is wasted in a handful of bits. I wish I'd seen this show on a night when young Michelle Chin, one of the understudies and an actor I've always admired, had gone on. Instead, the stage was filled with also-ran performances punctuated nicely by a trio of ninjas who occasionally danced but mostly manned the several set changes.

I found myself wondering why Dering would allow a play he loves so dearly to be presented on such a creaky, unattractive set. Designed by Weiss (more irony!), the set is mostly a warped ramp flanked by a set of squeaky scrims that groan and rasp their way up and down throughout. The sightlines are terrible; the tech crew and actors waiting to go on are plainly visible from the audience.

Dering's immaculate direction speaks as much about his love of details (a nicely danced battle sequence; the shattering of a heavy glass vase) as it does his love of this play. But if there's a triumph here, it belongs not to Dering's leading "lady" — or even to Dering for finally getting this rarely seen play off the ground — but to Weiss. As Gallimard himself says shortly before curtain, "Everything else simply falls short."