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Living a dream

Nathaniel Braga plays Song Liling ina dress rehearsal for M. Butterfly on Monday at the Wells-Metz Theatre.
Nathaniel Braga plays Song Liling ina dress rehearsal for M. Butterfly on Monday at the Wells-Metz Theatre.

When audiences enter the Wells-Metz Theatre ?opening night, they’ll see a completely empty stage.

The set design is surprisingly minimal for a play set in 28 different locations, but the cast, crew and director of “M. Butterfly” wanted to keep things simple.

“When you walk in, you just see a bare floor,” ?Director Murray McGibbon said. “When you leave you think, ‘Wow. I’ve been transported.’”

Audiences can journey to France and China during “M. Butterfly,” which opens 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Performances will also be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 28-31 and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Wells-Metz Theatre.

“M. Butterfly” tells the story of French diplomat Rene Gallimard, who falls in love with Chinese opera star Song Liling.

“It’s really a desperately tragic love story, but there’s a lot of humor in the play as well,” McGibbon said.

The play begins in Gallimard’s prison cell and starts at the end of the story, working its way through the main character’s memories, McGibbon said.

“M. Butterfly” is set in the imagination and memory of Gallimard.

“It becomes a fascinating, yet difficult story to tell,” McGibbon said. “It’s not linear. That’s what appeals to me about it. How do you stage a man’s thoughts and what’s going on in his brain physically onstage for an audience?”

Actor Nate Braga plays one of the main characters, Song Liling, in IU’s production.

Braga was asked to perform in the play at IU after Jonathan Michaelsen, director of the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance saw the same performance at the Court Theater in Chicago.

“I initially didn’t want to do it again,” Braga said. “But my manager said it would be an opportunity for a great acting challenge, and she was right.”

Braga said that working with a new cast and new set has given him even more experience.

“I had a set way of doing things before, but it’s a completely new show,” he said.

Braga said that adjusting to his new coworkers and reacting to what his costar, Chris Handley, does on stage is a rewarding part of the performance.

Although he has performed “M. Butterfly” many times before, Braga continues to work to make sure the piece is different and fresh each time, he said.

Performing the play in a new and exciting way hasn’t been the only challenge for the cast and crew.

Scenic designer Bridgette Dreher has worked to design a set in an “in-the-round” fashion.

“In-the-round” means audience members are seated around the entire stage.

“There’s no place to hide,” McGibbon said. “The action is very close to the audience. The stage and the auditorium almost become one.”

With central staging, actors and designers were forced to get creative with theatrics.

Dreher said the biggest challenge is to allow for dynamic action on a stage with no platforms or levels. This required all of the design elements to be in the air and fly in and out of the stage area.

The Wells-Metz Theatre is not set up for flying elements in an in-the-round setting, so designers had to create their own system to fly the set pieces in and out.

In addition, the designers had to pay specific attention to sightlines which required them to move around the auditorium and see the show from every perspective.

The flying elements could not obstruct audience members’ views and, with two balconies, it was difficult to make sure the view from every side was the same.

Dreher researched Chinese architecture and design before embarking on the design process. She noticed the heavy use of screens and geometric patterns in Chinese culture.

To incorporate those cultural decorations, Dreher used a screen as part of the prison cell.

It can fly up and down to be used whenever the scene reverts to the present day.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” McGibbon said. “We give 80 percent of the pieces to the audience and they need to use their imaginations to fill in the rest.”

The prison cell is largely Dreher’s favorite part of the show.

In the final scene, a light bulb comes down from the ceiling and then the cage is lowered down to the stage.

As the cage is lowered, a shadow is put on the ceiling and then moves over the audience in a dramatic motion, Dreher said.

“It’s very pretty and incredibly moving,” she said.

The beauty of the entire piece is what originally attracted Dreher to about “M. Butterfly.”

As part of her scenic design MFA program, she is assigned one to two shows per year.

However, Dreher requested to work on this particular play because she had read it years ago in an introductory theater class.

“I thought it was beautiful,” she said. “I liked the questions that it brought up about culture and identity. It was a chance to work on something impactful.”

“M. Butterfly” explores a variety of themes, including gender and racial identity and the Western perspective on Asian cultures.

“One of the good things about theater is that it presents stories that influence how we see other people,” Dreher said. “It shows how we view others and how we perceive people from other cultures and other races.”

Braga said the play is anything but normal and requires audience members to be completely engaged with the challenging subject ?matter.

“I hope the audience relates with these characters,” Braga said. “They’re so human. You get to see these flawed characters and feel for them. That’s what’s so brilliant about it.”

Single tickets are $25 for general admission, $15 for students and $20 for senior citizens.

Tickets can be purchased at the IU Auditorium box office or online at ?

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