An imaginative, if awkwardly constructed, rethinking of the themes of sexual exploitation in Madama Butterfly.
By Joel Benjamin
The Brits Off-Broadway series, now in full swing, is notable for its range of styles and subject matter. Butterfly, created, directed and performed by Ramesh Meyyappan, explores the outer edges of the theme of sexual exploitation interpreted in other “butterfly” related works of fiction, most notably the opera Madama Butterfly. Using a mishmash of theatrical techniques—mime, dance, Bunraku, Indonesian shadow puppetry—he produced an uneven, but stylish chamber work.
In Mr. Meyyappan’s construct, the young Asian woman, Butterfly (Naomi Livingstone) runs an artisan kite shop which is frequented by the Customer (Chris Alexander) who clearly has a crush on her. He leaves her little gifts after he purchases one kite after another, which we see her patiently assembling with intense concentration. Soon he has competition in the person of Nabokov (Mr. Meyyappan), a lepidopterist who sweeps Butterfly off her feet. His lessons in butterfly preservation, which fascinate Butterfly, are both informative and sadistic. (The author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov was, indeed, a butterfly expert.)
The Customer, in a jealous rage at losing the lady he never really had, attacks Butterfly, violently raping her several times, twisting Butterfly out of its meditative mood into emotional blackness. How this violence affects each character is the gist of the last twenty minutes of this play.
Did I mention that not one word is spoken during Butterfly? Yes, it is totally wordless, the only sounds provided by the breathing of the performers and a moody piano-heavy score by David Paul Jones.
Although the combination of techniques makes for an awkward mix, there are moments of exquisite beauty amongst the ugly violence, most notably the sequences where Butterfly gives birth, cares for and plays with the baby boy that results from the rape. A puppet baby, manipulated in some measure by all three performers, somehow exudes humanity, frailty and light, making the dark ending of Butterfly all the more bleak.
Neil Warmington’s simple set (three moveable shelves festooned with kite outlines and filled with specimen jars that magically come to life) and costumes (Japanese peasant girl and western clothes) registered nicely in the tiny upstairs theater at 59E59. Kate Bonney’s lighting turned the space into a little island of drama, while Darren Brownlie’s unassuming choreography meshed nicely with Mr. Meyyapan’s vision.
The three actors were concentrated and intense, making each moment vivid and simple.
Butterfly (April 23 – May 14, 2016)
59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues New York, NY
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit www.59E59.org
Running time: one hour, no intermission
Photos: Carol Rosegg