A chance meet­ing with in­spi­ra­tion

Va­ca­tion­ing in France, Bal­ti­more di­rec­tor Vin­cent Lan­cisi stum­bled onto the very man whose story he was about to tell in ‘M. But­ter­fly’

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY NEL­SON PRESSLEY nel­son.pressley@wash­post.com

What Vin­cent Lan­cisi did on his sum­mer va­ca­tion was stum­ble into the cre­ative scoop of his life. In June, Lan­cisi and his wife, Robin, were on the tail end of a two-week tour through France. He had just fin­ished di­rect­ing “Noises Off ” at Every­man Theatre, the Bal­ti­more troupe he founded in 1990. Sit­ting in the front seat of a van cruis­ing through south­ern France, Robin ca­su­ally asked the driver-guide where he was orig­i­nally from.

Hun­gary, replied Cs­aba Meresz. Robin fol­lowed up: How did he get to France?

“I was a driver for a fa­mous man,” Meresz said. “There is a movie about him with Jeremy Irons, called ‘M. But­ter­fly.’ ”

Vin­cent Lan­cisi was stunned. “Are you telling me you were the driver for Bernard Bour­si­cot?” Meresz said, “You know him?” Lan­cisi ex­plained that in Septem­ber he would di­rect “M. But­ter­fly,” the 1988 Pulitzer­win­ning drama based on the true story of the dis­graced French diplo­mat and con­victed spy — Bernard Bour­si­cot — who, to the world’s as­ton­ish­ment, learned at his trial that the Chi­nese woman who had been his se­cret lover for nearly 20 years was a man. Oh yes, Lan­cisi knew all about Bour­si­cot.

His head be­gan to spin when Meresz said, “You want to talk to him?”

Within the hour, Lan­cisi was on the phone with Bour­si­cot. By July, Lan­cisi had trekked back to France, in­vited to Bour­si­cot’s spar­tan nurs­ing home in Brit­tany with three peo­ple from Every­man — in­clud­ing, at Bour­si­cot’s re­quest, the ac­tor who would be play­ing him in the play, Bruce Nel­son.

“They asked me very nicely,” Bour­si­cot says imp­ishly from his nurs­ing home near Rennes. “And I don’t know how to refuse.”

Of course, it’s not pre­cisely Bour­si­cot in David Henry Hwang’s “M. But­ter­fly,” a play still so alive with East-West and mas­cu­line­fem­i­nine ten­sions that Clive Owen will star in a Julie Tay­mor-di­rected Broad­way re­vival this fall. Bour­si­cot was 20 when he ar­rived in Bei­jing in 1964, and the opera per­former Shi Pei Pu — Bour­si­cot’s Mata Hari — was ev­i­dently a man when they first cast eyes upon each other at a party.

Even­tu­ally, Shi sug­gested he was ac­tu­ally a woman pos­ing as a man for ad­van­tage in Mao’s China. Bour­si­cot be­lieved it and took on the role of lover and pro­tec­tor, even to the point of pass­ing mi­nor se­crets from the French Em­bassy through Shi. That, Bour­si­cot tes­ti­fied at his trial, was the price of be­ing able to see and safe­guard Shi dur­ing China’s re­stric­tive Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion.

For the clin­i­cal and emo­tional de­tails of Shi’s years-long de­cep­tion, see Joyce Wadler’s grip­ping “he said/he said” 1988 story in Peo­ple, or her 1993 book “Li­ai­son,” writ­ten with Bour­si­cot’s co­op­er­a­tion and ex­cerpted in the New York Times. Wadler also wrote Shi’s 2009 obit­u­ary and, days later, a back­handed ap­pre­ci­a­tion of “one of the more mad­den­ing sub­jects I have ever met.” Years ear­lier, Wadler had been duped into ac­cept­ing “an­tique” pearls from Shi that turned out to be fake.

“Rest in peace, Shi Pei Pu,” Wadler con­cluded. “You told a hel­luva story.”

The story as played out with Bour­si­cot in­cluded a son that the brazen Shi told Bour­si­cot was his. (Bour­si­cot be­lieved it, but the “son” is re­lated by blood to nei­ther man.) As the re­la­tion­ship with Shi waxed and waned, and as they were of­ten sep­a­rated by thou­sands of miles, Bour­si­cot took up an openly gay re­la­tion­ship with Thierry Toulet be­gin­ning in 1974.

In 1982 Bour­si­cot was fi­nally united in Paris with Shi and the “son,” but the sit­u­a­tion looked fishy, and soon the diplo­mat and his “mis­tress” were ar­rested. In 1986 both were jailed for es­pi­onage. By 1987, both were par­doned and re­leased.

Hwang tells much of this, but in the guise of the much older Rene Gal­li­mard, who is mar­ried and a sea­soned 39 when he meets the tan­ta­liz­ing Bei­jing opera star Song Lil­ing. Hwang ap­par­ently is re­vis­ing the script for Broad­way; Lan­cisi of­fered Every­man as a lab for changes but will be stag­ing the orig­i­nal ver­sion start­ing Sept. 6.

The play’s end de­lib­er­ately in­verts the fa­mous bloody cli­max of Puc­cini’s “Madame But­ter­fly.” In­stead of the aban­doned Asian woman killing her­self over the Western man, it’s the self-im­por­tant, overly ro­man­tic, will­fully blind Western-mas­cu­line sym­bol Gal­li­mard who is driven to his doom by the ma­nip­u­la­tions of his Chi­nese “But­ter­fly.”

If Bour­si­cot, 73, is at odds with Hwang’s “M. But­ter­fly,” it has not pre­vented him from at­tend­ing a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tions. He says he has never spo­ken about it with Hwang (lawyers ne­go­ti­ated the rights), and he first saw it in the 1989 Lon­don pro­duc­tion that starred An­thony Hop­kins as Gal­li­mard.

“Peo­ple were cry­ing be­side me,” Bour­si­cot re­calls. “I told them, ‘Don’t cry so much. I am still alive.’ ”

That’s in­dica­tive of the hu­mor that Lan­cisi and Nel­son say they en­coun­tered dur­ing their wel­com­ing, slightly per­plex­ing July day with the for­mer spy. “His room is a cell,” Lan­cisi says. “Gray walls, flu­o­res­cent light­ing, a bed, two chairs, a ta­ble, noth­ing per­sonal on the walls. There weren’t enough places for us to sit.” A ra­dio re­porter sat on the floor. Lan­cisi perched on the bed with Bour­si­cot, close enough to see the scar where the diplo­mat slit his own throat in pri­son.

They also en­coun­tered an in­cli­na­tion to de­flect. “He did not want to talk about Shi Pei Pu, much to my dis­may,” Lan­cisi says. “But I wasn’t sur­prised. He had put that some­where in a safe place.”

“He was a gay man who couldn’t be out,” Nel­son sug­gests. “He needed to play this game.” Did Bour­si­cot agree with that? “We couldn’t get that far,” Lan­cisi says. “What I saw was a man who was hun­gry to talk about this in­cred­i­ble, epic life he has led. This story is 20 out of 50 years of travel through 63 coun­tries. He speaks maybe six lan­guages. He’s car­ried diplo­matic pouches from Bei­jing through Mon­go­lia, jour­neys on top-se­cret mis­sions.”

Nel­son adds, “His fa­vorite movies are ‘Lawrence of Ara­bia,’ ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”

“He said, ‘If Shi Pei Pu were a woman, I’d be a hero,’ ” Lan­cisi says. “It’s in Wadler’s book: Ev­ery­thing he did for her was to get her out of China, be­cause he felt she wasn’t safe there.”

Af­ter two hours of talk­ing, Bour­si­cot pro­vided lunch in grace­ful Con­ti­nen­tal style. Else­where in the build­ing, a ta­ble was set for eight: “Wine, ap­pe­tizer, en­tree, dessert, cheese,” Lan­cisi says. “It was a feast.” Less than a third of their en­tirely pleas­ant visit, which be­gan with Bour­si­cot pre­sent­ing his guests with Asianthemed neck­ties, dealt with de­cep­tion, re­sent­ment, love — is­sues raised by the play.

“It was hard for me,” is the most Bour­si­cot says, fleet­ingly, about the ar­rest, im­pris­on­ment and scan­dal dur­ing a phone in­ter­view. Meresz says: “If you are in a story like that, I think you are hurt in­side. The story was fa­mous, but I think it’s im­por­tant to say what is in­side his soul.”

Is talk­ing with artists and jour­nal­ists a way of cor­rect­ing the “M. But­ter­fly” record? “Non, non, non,” Bour­si­cot says quickly. He speaks in gen­er­ally clear, French-in­flected English, but the voice is weak, and the breath­ing grows heavy dur­ing a 20-minute con­ver­sa­tion. Bour­si­cot suf­fered a stroke about a decade ago.

“Com­pared to all the peo­ple I know, I am very lucky,” Bour­si­cot says as, be­lieve it or not, John Len­non’s “Imag­ine” plays in the back­ground. “I re­cov­ered com­pletely my abil­ity. I go to Paris quite of­ten, ev­ery few months. I try to eat good food. Some­times I go to the cinema, but not as of­ten as I would like. Some­times I go to the swim­ming pool. It is very sim­ple, my life.”

Charm­ingly, and ap­par­ently sin­cerely, he adds, “I am happy you called me.” He ex­plains that he is al­ways pleased to talk to peo­ple in­ter­ested in the play, “be­cause it seems you like the story. So you should like me even bet­ter.”

AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Bruce Nel­son will soon star as Rene Gal­li­mard in “M. But­ter­fly” at Bal­ti­more’s Every­man Theatre. In July, he got to meet the model for his char­ac­ter, dis­graced French diplo­mat Bernard Bour­si­cot.

TOP: AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST; ABOVE: KIIRSTN PAGAN/EVERY­MAN THEATRE

TOP: Every­man Theatre founder Vin­cent Lan­cisi made con­nec­tion with Bour­si­cot af­ter meet­ing a man who had once been the French­man’s driver. ABOVE: Nel­son and Lan­cisi with Bour­si­cot, cen­ter, out­side his nurs­ing home near Rennes, France. Bour­si­cot gave his guests Asian-themed neck­ties.

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