Two plays explore complicated identities.
Playwrights David Henry Hwang and Edward Albee explore identity in new productions at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and McCarter Theatre, respectively.
In the Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly, Hwang combines the plot of Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly with a complex spy story, and uses the resulting hybrid to investigate gender and political, cultural, racial and sexual identity.
Set in Peking and Paris, the play (which begins just before the U.S. war against Vietnam and spans 20 years) focuses on the French diplomat Rene (Christopher Innvar, whose tame performance is the production's only significant flaw) and his lover Song, a Chinese opera singer (the excellent Telly Leung).
Song is submissive to Rene, and the Frenchman clearly relishes his role as the dominant male. But in M. Butterfly appearances are deceptive, and Hwang uses this deception to attack both cultural and gender stereotypes, particularly the Western male perception that the East is feminine and weak.
Director Joe Calarco's massively theatrical production exploits the illusory nature of theater to reveal the truth behind the deceptions, effectively forcing us to reassess our own beliefs regarding sexuality and race.
Featuring Chris Lee's sumptuous lighting and Helen Huang's lovely costumes, the production is visually arresting, and occasionally M. Butterfly is a thrilling, fascinating play about the roles we adopt--and how in the end the greatest illusions are our own.
Where Calarco's production of Butterfly has a visceral impact, director Emily Mann's staging of Edward Albee's Me, Myself and I (having its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre) is almost clinical by comparison.
Unlike Hwang--who explores identity from myriad perspectives--in Myself Albee focuses almost exclusively on individual identity. Highly abstract, the story concerns a pair of identical twins named, respectively, OTTO (the magnetic Michael Esper) and otto (Colin Donnell). As children the boys shared a deep emotional bond, but now, 28 years old, they're growing apart. They still look the same (at least they're supposed to; Esper and Donnell are physically similar but far from identical), but their personalities differ dramatically.
Uppercase OTTO (referred to as "loud" OTTO) is vindictive and cruel, but also charismatic and fascinating. "Soft" otto is sweet, kind and a bit boring. With Thomas Lynch's cold, sterile scenic design, the only warmth in the play is provided by the outstanding Tyne Daly as the boys' mother, and the superb Brian Murray as her longtime lover.
In examining the role heredity plays in the formation of identity, Albee's at times humorous comedy is intellectually invigorating, but it rarely connects on an emotional level--making Myself a minor work from one of America's most revered dramatists.
Through Feb. 24. $10-$58. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. 215.985.0420. www.philadelphia theatrecompany.org
Me, Myself and I
Through Feb. 17. $15-$49. McCarter Theatre, 91 University Pl., Princeton, N.J. 609.258.ARTS. www.mccarter.org
Philadelphia's major theaters are known for their diversity, but they rarely tackle gay themes. Filling the void is the new Mauckingbird Theatre Company, making an impressive debut with a sparkling reimagining of Moli�re's comedy The Misanthrope. Set in a Paris where "gay men rule," the production views Moli�re's tale of pretense and conceit from a gay perspective. Winningly performed by an all-male cast, the story focuses on Alceste (Dito van Reigersberg) who, like every other Parisian male, is madly in love with the beautiful C�lim�ne (the alluring Evan Jonigkeit). Unlike the disingenuous suitors who attempt to secure Celimene's attentions with shallow compliments and self-important boasts, Alceste rails against the hypocrisy of insincere flattery and "bogus friendships." Utilizing Ranjit Bolt's brisk and engaging contemporary translation, director Peter Reynolds' fast-paced production effectively captures the eloquence of Moli�re's witty rhyme scheme. Featuring a trio of strong performances from van Reigersberg, Jonigkeit and the hilarious Keith Conallen as the outrageously conniving Arsin�e, Mauckingbird's immensely entertaining production exposes the pretentiousness of a gay subculture that favors beauty and youth over sincerity. (J.C.R.) � Through Sat., Feb. 2. $15-$20. Second Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 215.563.4330. www.mauckingbirdtheatreco.org
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