September 29, 2017 at 1:23 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Gender-bending romance
M. Butterfly, gay news, Washington Blade

Bruce Randolph Nelson (front) and Vichet Chum in ‘M. Butterfly.’ (Photo by Clinton B Photography)

‘M. Butterfly’
Through Oct. 8
Everyman Theatre
315 West Fayette Street

Two gay actors playing gay characters. Nothing too out of the ordinary there. But with Everyman Theatre’s season opener “M. Butterfly” it becomes a bit more complicated.

In David Henry Hwang’s play partly inspired by Puccini’s opera, the protagonist is closeted French diplomat Rene Gallimard who falls in love with Peking opera star Song Liling who is a man disguised as a woman (a detail about which Rene may or may not be aware). The pair enters into an intense relationship that involves espionage and ultimately leads to tragedy.

For two-time Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Bruce Randolph Nelson who plays Gallimard, the part marks a turning point in his career.

“In the age of Trump, I’ve asked myself what really matters,” Nelson, an Everyman company member since 2001, says. “It used to be if just one person saw themselves reflected in a play and they’re changed by what they see then it was worth doing. Now that’s not enough. Needs to be more. ‘M. Butterfly’ asks big, hairy, awkward questions in a very beautiful way. Everyman excels at storytelling that’s at once intimate and big. This show has reinvigorated my love for acting.”

Playing opposite Nelson is New York-based actor Vichet Chum as Song. He was first introduced to “M. Butterfly” as a college freshman at University of Evansville in Indiana where he earned a degree in theater performance.

“I’d come from a pretty conservative Dallas background,” Chum says. “My parents are Cambodian immigrants. I first read the play for a class and it rocked my world. I’d never encountered an Asian character like this before. The story stayed with me so when I got the opportunity to play the part I was definitely excited. I’m intrigued by Song’s inner complexity and the details of her life. As an Asian actor this a particularly important role. The part checks all the boxes of what you like as a theater performer.”

Song is also Chum’s first foray into drag. He makes 11 costume changes. When he’s not onstage Chum is quickly changing outfits and makeup to achieve the diva’s perfect look.

“I’m an Asian man playing an Asian man who plays the role of the perfect Asian woman. It took some work to get the physical mannerisms. I try to keep it light and as graceful as possible. Yet I keep a sense of knowing and irony in what I’m doing.”

Song’s gender fluidity is not a main theme in the piece.

“Whether she’s transgender or a gay man who does drag, I can’t be certain,” Chum says. “Much of her choices are based on utility and her job as a performer and surviving communist China. Other motivations are much grayer. It’s a mystery. I don’t think she ever plays all her cards, frankly.”

Nelson, 51, commiserates with Rene.

“He’s a gay man who couldn’t be himself. He had to mask behind male bravado, cultural and religious dictums, and diplomatic constraints. But he was willing to overlook and deny everything in pursuit of love. I was a gay man in college who hid behind an engagement to a woman until I couldn’t play the straight game anymore. It gutted me, but I’m better for it.”

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