Culture and the Arts Entertainment

The spectacular ‘M(anila) Butterfly’

Ibarra C. Mateo


IN the opening scene of the play, Director Kanakan Balintagos swiftly beguiled and bewitched the audience of his own re-imagination, if not reinvention, of Henry David Hwang’s “M Butterfly,” a Jhett Tolentino and Front Row Entertainment-production in Manila.

Those who professionally know the-former Aureus Solito and the-now Kanakan Balintagos comprehend that he is a full-bloodied risk-taker in crafting his works.

The M Butterfly, currently running at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater, can be labeled as one of Balintagos’ most audacious achievements, if not triumphs.

Consider this.

Standing among the sensuous swaths of blackness and soft light lusciously designed by John Batalla, a semi-nude person is gradually illuminated, titillating the mind to wonder if it were Chinese opera singer Song Liling (essayed again by RS Francisco). For a few seconds, the cinematic illusion lingered.

But with a quick turn to face the audience, truth is revealed. It is French diplomat Rene Gallimard (played by Olivier Borten).

This particular scene, which opened the play, sets the tone and texture of the Balintagos’ version of M Butterfly: the tension in the fine fissure between illusion and truth. Real life is replete with truth masquerading as illusion and illusion marketed as truth.

Image courtesy of Front Row Entertainment

M Butterfly also tackles the strain in contradictions inherent in human condition. Was Gallimard in love with Song or was Song just a “fetish object” for him? Was Gallimard enchanted by Song or was he just smitten with the fantasy of playing the role of Pinkerton to Song’s portrayal of a hapless Butterfly?

The above questions are dissected compassionately by Balintagos in his newest play. Scene after scene, Balintagos anointed his M Butterfly with empathy for this is an effective way for the audience to plumb the mysteries and miseries of Gallimard, a man derided by the world and demolished by his unconditional love for Song. Some may say Gallimard was foolish, but anyone who had been in love or had given his or her heart away may disagree wholeheartedly.

Briefly, M Butterfly was based on the scandalous affair between French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot and actor and spy Shi Pei Pu, who managed to “fool” the diplomat by presenting himself as a woman, for years while passing on security secrets to the Chinese government. The two first met, and eventually became lovers, in a staging of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in a opera house in China.

Image courtesy of Front Row Entertainment

In bold and confident strokes, Balintagos majestically tweaked Hwang’s “tragic love story” together with several of the country’s finest artistic and creative ensemble.

Olivier Borten’s Gallimard ripped hearts but was buoyant, and tragic yet exuberant to have known and “possessed” his Butterfly. His final scene was wrenching.

RS Francisco, who shot to prominence 28 years ago as Song opposite Behn Cervantes’ Gallimard in a Tony Mabesa incarnation of M Butterfly, was both fragile and formidable, innocent and worldly, and elegantly feminine and a badass under the guidance of Balintagos.

Pinky Amador’s Helga, dutiful wife of Gallimard, glistened in her understated acting.

Mayen Estañero as Comrade Chin, Suzuki, and Shu Fang displayed dexterity, sometimes stealing scenes in her multiple roles.

Maya Encila as Renee and Pin-up Girl exuded carnality and sultriness, filling the whole stage with her presence. Encila is an intelligent actress who must be seen in more productions.

Soprano opera singer Rica Nepomuceno transposed the audience to the opera house where Gallimard first fell under the spell of Song.

Norman McLeod (Toulon/Judge) and Lee O’Brian (Marc/Pinkerton) exhibited convictions in their roles.

The Kurogos composed of Pheith Iena Ballug, Ullyses Basa, Aira Jay Igarta, Kay Megan Kierulf, and John Paul Ortenero must be commended for their hefty contribution in the success of M Butterfly.

The clever set design by Ohm David featured giant Chinese fans and an almost-barren stage save for a wooden plank which provided extra space for the actors to ascend and descend. The Chinese fans appeared to be lobes of a brain where the mental meanderings of the main characters take place.

John Batalla’s gorgeous lighting deepened the mysteries and sensuousness of M Butterfly.

Eric Pineda’s colorful and magnificent costumes showcased his expertise in blending the East and West, from the formal Chinese gowns to the “Paul Gaultier” black ensemble by Song.

Jethro Joaquin’s sound design, which mixed the ravishing original compositions and poignant adaptations of composer-arranger Joed Balsamo from Madame Butterfly, provided a layered aural dimension to the production. The collaboration between Joaquin and Balsamo for M Butterfly produced some of the most moving scores in Philippine theater this year.

Carissa Adea’s choreography was noteworthy in infusing vigor to the play.

Balintagos’ M(anila) Butterfly should flutter its wings all over Asia and maybe the rest of the world.

(M Butterfly runs until Sept. 30 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater, BGC Arts Center, Bonifacio Global City. For tickets, call TICKETWORLD at 891-9999. For further inquiries, please contact ISHA GERMENTIL at mobile number 0917- 623 – 3834.)


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Ibarra C. Mateo
A journalist since 1983, Ibarra C. Mateo is also an editor, a researcher, and a communication consultant.

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