By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Playing a man who lives as a woman most of the time, a man who must convincingly pass as a woman to succeed in life, doesn’t come easy. But Seattle’s Tom Dang, playing Song Liling in ArtsWest’s new production of the play “M. Butterfly,” viewed this chance as a privilege.
“M. Butterfly is one of my favorite plays of all time,” Dang enthused. “Song Liling being one of my top three roles I’ve always wanted to play (the others being King Richard III and Hamlet). I studied it as an undergrad, worked on it in Los Angeles, and even considered producing it with my own theatre company.
“What I like is the attempt at human connection between the two leads and how time, circumstance and how the choice to embrace ideas over reality can get in the way of love.”
Playwright David Henry Hwang based his award-winning play partially on a true story: The strange case of Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat assigned to China in the 1960s, and Shi Pei Pu, a male Chinese opera singer specializing in female roles. Shi persuaded Boursicot to hand over secret French documents to the Chinese government, all the while convincing his French lover that he was actually dating a Chinese woman, not a man.
Hwang changed details, re-named the protagonists Rene Gallimard and Song Liling. He also included aspects of the classic opera “Madama Butterfly” (music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa).
Kathy Hsieh, who plays a female citizen called “Comrade Chin” in the production, allowed that sexual deception forms the backbone of the story, but isn’t the whole story. “On another level, Hwang flips the racial constructs and stereotypes portrayed in the classic opera ‘Madama Butterfly’ by paralleling it with the real-life story,” she elaborated.
“He also uses the real-life incident as a device to explore the socio-political relationship between East and West. And at its deepest level, he examines toxic masculinity and the relationship between male and female.”
Song Liling goes through several changes of makeup and costume, and performs excerpts from the opera. Tom Dang admitted that getting into character wasn’t easy.
A lot of Song Liling’s transformations will be handled by our costumer, Natalie Shih, who is also designing the make-up,” the actor explained. “On my end, I am working to adjust my body to fit her selection of dresses, while also retaining the athleticism needed to perform Song’s Chinese opera moments. I changed my workout plan to focus mostly on strengthening my core and lower body. I’ve also adjusted my diet to limit carbs and include (almost exclusively) tuna, chicken, and greens.”
Hsieh says it’s a great pleasure to work with Dang. The two became friends in 2012 and have worked on several projects since. They both also praise their director, Samip Raval.
Tom Dang calls Raval a “very specific” director, focused on unpacking all possible meanings out of a single moment onstage. Hsieh feels fulfilled at the director’s exploring the psychology of the characters, and his close attention to the culture of China in that period, just before, and then during, the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.
The director “really wants everyone involved to have a strong foundation for their work,” Hsieh concludes. “I think this is so important given the play is about the stereotypes that Westerners often have of the East and we who are Asian, and how they are not true. That we are so much more.”
“M. Butterfly” plays Jan. 24–Feb. 17 at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.