The thing most everyone loves about birds is their ability to fly, yet one of the first things we do is catch them and put them in a cage. The same can be said of love. Told without a single spoken word, Butterfly, currently at 59E59 Theaters, unwraps a story of a kite-maker who is courted by a customer but is smitten with a butterfly catcher. The hour-long production is rich with symbolism, European and Asian sensibilities, and movement choreographed to haunting original music.
Beautifully acted by Naomi Livingstone, Chris Alexander and Ramesh Meyyappan, who also created and directed the play, Butterfly opens with the three characters miming kite flying with synchronized, lyrical movement. Meyyappan, as the butterfly lover Nabokov, is the first to break off with hand motions of a butterfly fluttering around the stage. It becomes clear quickly that both the customer (Alexander) and the butterfly catcher are more than interested in the ubiquitous Butterfly (Livingstone.)
Alexander, as the customer, is charming in a boyish manner, always bringing Butterfly a wrapped gift when he comes to purchase kites. Butterfly flirts with him but is taken aback when he comes in close. It is Nabokov who steals her heart, much like he catches his butterflies. Excited that he is moving in with her, she changes and alters her behavior and routine to fit his mood. At first Butterfly is taken with his butterfly-net acumen, but she is horrified at watching the chloroform kill the butterfly so that Nabokov can mount his specimen.
The gift of a comb from the customer sets jealousy in motion. Butterfly is at the brunt of it as Nabokov aggressively combs her hair with the gift. In an effort to appease him, she attempts to return the comb to the customer. Filled with the rage of rejection, he forces himself on her. When Nabokov learns of this, he rejects her. The dramatic, wrenching scene is played out twice. It becomes evident that she is replaying the scene, much like anyone who has been the victim of violence replays the event over and over in his or her head. Her barely audible wailing is the closest thing to a spoken word.
What follows is a series of exquisitely portrayed events: a dream sequence using a doll in the likeness of Nabokov, the birth of her child employing bold and visual imagery, and the young child’s exploratory actions into the world through puppetry. With controls aptly handled by Alexander and Meyyappan, an inquisitive, lifelike cloth puppet makes its way around the stage, climbing onto a desk pulling pins from the butterfly shadowbox, finally tearing the butterfly in two. Butterfly’s rage sends him flying across the floor. Alexander and Meyyappan disappear as the puppeteers, much like those in Nick Stafford’s adaptation of War Horse, but their acting does not. They are the doll in the dream walking across the sleeping Butterfly; they also become the curious child making its way into a new world. Nothing else exists.
The haunting and expressive puppet and detailed dolls are attributed to the skillful Gavin Glover. Neil Warmington has developed a fluid set with three bakers’ racks on wheels, first creating the kite-makers’ workspace and later transforming it into their home and a workshop for Nabokov. Also credited with costuming, Warmington could have use a lighter touch with a softer-soled shoe. Lighting is limited and sketchy, and shadows, while important, left the actors in the dark too often. However, it is the inspiring original music by David Paul Jones, married to the choreography of Darren Brownlie, that is the undercurrent of Butterfly.
The word creative is particularly limiting if used to describe Meyyappan, especially given the way he sees and delivers life onto the stage, and Butterfly is more than the typical story of courting, lovers and jealousy. However, what becomes clear is that he is a master storyteller. Expressing all of these emotions while conveying complicated humans without words is what propels Butterfly to soar.
Part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, Butterfly runs through May 14 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues. Evening performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.