PCS Blog

Throwback Thursday: “M. Butterfly”

Posted by Alice Hodge | 23 January 2014

For this Throwback Thursday (#TBT for you social media folks) blog edition, we're taking it back to 1990 when Portland Center Stage, then the Portland branch of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, produced the first regional production of Chinglish playwright David Henry Hwang's award-winning M. Butterfly. We spoke with Cynthia Furhman, Director of Marketing & Communications and one of the original five OSF staff who helped start the Portland branch that ultimately became PCS, about the show. 

 


Laurence Ballard (Gallimard) and Luo-Yong Wang (Song Lilong) headline The Oregonian's A&E. 

 

Hi, Cynthia! Tell us about M. Butterfly at PCS.

It was the opening show of our third season in Portland - we opened in the fall of 1988. It was pretty exciting as it was a big hit on Broadway - everyone was talking about the play. John Lithgow played Gallimard. We started pursuing the rights early on and it was a long process because that kind of Broadway hit was likely to go out on a national tour, and if that was going to happen, they won’t give the rights.  But, I think they finally decided that Portland was not a market they would tour to in those days, so we were able to get the rights to do the first non-Broadway production.

But the show did not end up touring, correct?

They ultimately did not do a national tour in the end. The producers had withheld the rights to other cities they were perusing because of the possibility of a tour, but ultimately released the rights to those cities. We, however, got them first and opened the next season with it, so October of 1990. 
 

How was it received?

Really well received; huge hit. It was also controversial because it had full frontal male and female nudity in it. Our production was, in some ways, more aggressive on the nudity than the New York production which had the female stripper upstage, behind a scrim and we had her downstage, front and center with no scrim. The attitude was – if we are going to do it, we are going to do it. So, it had some controversy. Some people declined to see it once they read that in the reviews, but overall it was a huge hit and a great seller for us. People still talk about it and it was a really fun production. 

 

Luo-Yong Wang, (Song Liling) in traditional Beijing Opera costume. Photo by Rick Adams

What about challenges surrounding the cultural requirements of the play?

The other big challenge with the show – echoing a little bit what is going on with Chinglish, but slightly different – is that there is an actual scene in the play that is Beijing Opera, that requires you to do Beijing Opera. So, we had to find performers and acrobats who could do that scene for us. And then, obviously, the actor playing the lead, Luo-Yong Wang, (Song Liling) was a fairly recent immigrant to the US. We found him somewhere in the Midwest and I believe we gave him his first big role in the US. He went on, I believe, to reprise this role a year later at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

So, while Liling is in the Beijing Opera scene, you really need the acrobats to do all the traditional aerial work. We actually found three performers living in the US – thankfully, we didn’t have to deal with visas – who were Beijing Opera trained and spoke very little English, so we had to have translators around. Again, a similar situation to Chinglish. Because they still toured in the US doing Beijing Opera style performances, they had the right costumes and spear-like objects already. We were able to essentially rent the costumes and use them in the show. So, it was authentic.
 

 

Laurence Ballard,  Paul K. Chun and Man Wong. Photo by Rick Adams.

What about the other actors?

Larry (Laurence) Ballard, who plays Gallimard, had done multiple shows with us every season, so by our third season he was the closest we had to a company actor. We had several actors in those days with roots in Ashland, since we were a branch of Ashland, who kind of became our core company in Portland. Larry Ballard, Demetra Pittman, Marco Barricelli – those three in particular did a ton of shows with us in the beginning years. Our audiences had come to expect to see them on our stage, so I think our audiences were particularly excited to see Larry to do this part. Gallimard is a pretty amazing role. 

 

 

Laurence Ballard as Rene Gillimard. Photo by Rick Adams.

 

Any other good stories?

I remember opening night. Because we were still OSF Portland, every opening night we had all the brass from Ashland here. The Ashland board was here – a lot of them traveled from San Francisco, Portland, Ashland. It was a very black tie affair with live bands.  US Bank was our opening night sponsor during those years; they used to design and print the most beautiful opening night invitations. The M. Butterfly invitation was a gorgeous dye-cut butterfly that opened. 

I do remember sitting behind the Ashland Board President at the time and his wife during opening night. They loved the show, but when the stripper scene happened – in those days Ashland had not done anything quite this...um...direct – I remember her gasp when the final stitch of clothing came off that woman onstage. She was so surprised that she had reacted that way that she started to laugh at herself for having that moment of “Oh my god! They are naked!”

 


Check out the original creative team behind PCS' M. Butterly here. And don't miss David Henry Hwang's Chinglish now through February 9. Tickets and more info HERE.

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