Randy Reyes will play the role of Song Liling in the Guthrie’s production of M.Butterfly (Photo by Mike Habermann)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (April 2, 2010) – Randy Reyes faces a unique transformative challenge in portraying Song Liling, the Chinese actress who is actually a spy – and a man – in David Henry Hwang’s, “M. Butterfly” running April 17 through June 6, 2010 at the Guthrie Theater.M. Butterfly is the 1988 Tony and Drama Desk award-winning play set during China’s Cultural Revolution, from 1960 to 1980. It is the story of French diplomat Rene Gallimard, who wields power and influence in his bid to possess a Peking opera performer. Based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the Hwang story is also a love story with deception but takes a deeper look at East-West power dynamics, intercultural perceptions and sexual identity issues.
Reyes said that China and the world are much different today and that M.Butterfly is a glimpse at a different time. The very musical production shows Chinese culture before the revolution, and then throws in some revolutionary ballet to show the impact of Mao on art and the resulting restrictions on artists.
“I think that part of Song’s decision to go into espionage was that he wanted to maintain a certain lifestyle and that it was the only way it allowed him to do that,” he added.
Reyes said he has put on a dresses for other roles, but that Song Liling is a complete transformation with plucked eyebrows, shaved legs and underarms, full makeup, eyelashes, wigs, tight dresses, robes, kimonos and four different kinds of shoes.
Linda Cho is the costume designer.
All of this femininity brings a different type of energy that has permeated into his real life. He grows his fingernails longer and puts on heels to condition his legs for walking, dancing and Kabuki movement. He conditions his voice to sustain high pitch for dialogue and singing. He even rehearses eating as a woman.
“Its like acting camp for transformation,” said Reyes. “It’s a complete change, different than anything I’ve ever done at the Guthrie.”
Preparing for the role meant looking at his own insecurities to see how much of himself he could bring to the character and how he could transform the rest. He could internalize Song’s personality but it was a more difficult physical transformation to suppress a lifetime of masculine postures and mannerisms.
“It is very interesting now to embrace my feminine side and its strange that parts of it are very comfortable; that I go into that feeling this is very natural, but my physical habits and also my physical makeup needs adjustments that I didn’t think would be so difficult but actually are.”
Andrew Long plays Gallimard, the diplomat who falls in love with Song Liling. By the time Song’s identity is revealed, Gallimard is convicted of treason and is telling his tale from a prison cell.
Gallimard is unaware that Song Liling is actually a man – as women were not allowed to perform in Beijing opera at the time. He denies his naiveté that this “perfect woman” is also a spy for the Chinese Communist government and that their 20 year relationship is all a deception for espionage.
The challenge is to play Song convincingly, said Reyes. It is crucial to convince the audience that Gallimard is deceived.
Andrew Long is a very talented actor with an enormous amount of experience on stage, said Reyes. He also credited director Peter Rothstein with creating a very safe environment to navigate the confusing world of his character and this strange relationship.
This play on West and East is a play on male and female, and also of gender issues within West and East. Song is in control, he said, because ‘he’ has the power of secrets and the knowledge of how Gallimard would perceive Eastern culture and Eastern women and could use this against him in the affair.
Song approaches Gallimard in such a way as to let him initiate this fantasy and be the dominant partner to submissive female. Reyes said that Hwang reverses the two roles so that it is the submissive woman, actually a man, who is manipulating the western man.
“In the play we are conscious of when the power dynamics switch and who has control and how that control switches over, and what are the truths, and what are the dynamics within that,” said Reyes.
Reyes notes that Rothstein is a great coordinator of an ambitious project. He also did his research on Jingjù Peking Opera and had David Furumoto on board as the Asian Discipline Consultant. He learned the politics and art forms of the era and created a new art form by blending it all together with music and dance so that is much bigger than just a play.
“It doesn’t matter who directs or if it’s an Asian American play or a White play or an African American play, if someone has this kind of dedication into learning the background and informing themselves and educating themselves and then making decisions based on that knowledge – its thrilling.”
The cast will also feature Tina Chilip as Comrade Chin, Suzuki, and Shu-Fang. Reyes said the Chinese-Filipina Chilip brings great energy to the play.
Other Asian American cast members include Sherwin F. Resurreccion and Momoko Tanno as a singer Kurogo dancer. Erik Sharp is an understudy.
Reyes described a great balance of Asian actors and Guthrie veterans, Nathaniel Fuller, Katie Guentzel, Charity Jones and Lee Mark Nelson. He said there are great discussions about politics and perceptions of race and gender in Asian American theater.
“It’s a great mix of people who are really thoughtful about the issues and are not afraid to ask questions, and are very open to learning and exploring this very complicated work, ” said Reyes.
Reyes had just graduated from Juilliard when he met David Henry Hwang at a New York workshop. They two formed an artistic partnership after working together again in Seattle and Hwang began working on a part for him.
After moving to Minneapolis, Reyes made his Guthrie debut in 1999 with The School for Scandal, and more recently appeared in two other Hwang plays, Flower Drum Song at the Ordway, and Yellow Face at the Guthrie in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts.
Reyes said there is no better connection than an actor who understands a playwright’s work and that he is happy that Hwang feels he had serve his characters well.
“I love his language, and I love the complexities of his characters and the humanity,” said Reyes.
In a Guthrie press release, Hwang states that Reyes has “come of age as a major American actor”, and that he is a significant reason that three of his works were staged in the Twin Cities this season.
Look for Reyes this summer to be directing this own theater company, Strange Capers, and doing an outdoor production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. He will also direct City of Angels at Bloomington Civic Theater, and then Year Zero at Mu.
Previews performances begin April 17; and opens April 23 through June 6, 2010. Tickets start at $24. Call the Guthrie Box Office at 612-377-2224 and at www.guthrietheater.org.