The Spying Game 

Act I presents David Henry Hwang's gender-bending psychological thriller

Act I presents David Henry Hwang's gender-bending psychological thriller

M. Butterfly

Presented by ACT I

Through May 14 at the Darkhorse Theater

Nashville's foremost community theater, ACT I, is breaking artistic ground with the local premiere of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. First produced in 1988, the play captured the Tony Award, the New York Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award. It's a notorious piece, and director Brian Hill capitalizes on the controversy. But it's also an exceedingly well-written play, chock-full of debate about men and women, love and sex, and the stereotypes and distortions that have historically characterized (and undermined) the relations between Eastern and Western cultures.

Hwang is the first Asian American to reach lofty critical heights as a playwright, yet his lead character is distinctly neither Yankee nor Asian. Rene Gallimard is a French diplomat living and working in 1960s Peking (i.e., Beijing, before the Cultural Revolution). Based on bizarre yet apparently true-to-life events, Hwang's tale revolves around Gallimard's 20-year relationship with a Chinese opera singer who not only successfully masqueraded as a woman for all that time, but also served as an agent for the Chinese government, passing on sensitive information gleaned from the strange liaison. The setup strains credibility, yet the compelling intellectual ideas—on politics, international intrigue and colonial white attitudes toward Asia—are fascinating enough to reinforce our willingness to suspend disbelief. Gallimard engages in twisted psychological games involving elements of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, the story of which parallels yet eventually contradicts his own life.

Marc Mazzone is well cast as Gallimard, finding intensity throughout in a well-spoken character typified by official boorishness, arrogant male pride bordering on misogyny, and a single-minded pursuit of amorous fantasy over reality. "Happiness is so rare," he states, rationalizing the inevitable breakup of his marriage to a devoted if prosaic wife. Regarding the impulses that drive his fatally flawed affair, he says, "I'm a man who loved a woman created by a man. Anything else simply falls short."

Derrick San Miguel, all of 19 years old, portrays Song Liling, the young man who uses wigs, fans and colorful kimonos to capture and maintain Gallimard's heart. Like most actors making their stage debut, San Miguel is often unsure and not particularly eloquent—not to mention burdened with the challenge of playing a man playing a woman. But for all that, director Hill laudably guides him through his paces efficiently. Even the amateurish lapses in characterization rarely get in the way of the intelligently crafted story's momentum, which leads to an Act 3 of rarefied theatricality. San Miguel's moments of full frontal nudity are handled with serious intent and good taste. Whatever curiosity is induced by the bold presence of a toned, naked male body is superseded dramatically by Mazzone's climactic final scene, rendered movingly and suspensefully.

Eight other players adequately support the leads. Michelle Pedersen stands out among them, with Melissa Bedinger-Hade, April Hardcastle and Bob Young making solid contributions.

Ultimately, the real miracle of transformation is the way Hill has taken a group of community players of widely varying experience and managed to wring out performances that result in a representative interpretation of a complex and controversial modern script.

ACT I recently announced its 2005-'06 theater season. The promising lineup features a mix of classics, lighter fare and serious, ambitious drama, most notably Peter Shaffer's Equus, scheduled for an Oct. 21-29 run. Other selections include The Gin Game (Sept. 9-17), Spoon River Anthology (Jan. 20-28), Talley's Folly (March 3-11), A Midsummer Night's Dream (May 5-13) and Love! Valour! Compassion! (June 2-10). In accordance with the Darkhorse Theater's new policy, show runs are two weekends only.

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