Actor Jake Manabat eager for ‘M. Butterfly’ challenge

"This is a dream come true for me,” said Jake Manabat, an Asian-American who plays Song Lilang, a ma
Jake Manabat rehearses a scene as Song Lilang in Capital Rep’s "M. Butterfly."
Jake Manabat rehearses a scene as Song Lilang in Capital Rep’s "M. Butterfly."

Despite the many challenges of the character he plays, Jake Manabat didn’t have to think twice about playing the lead in Capital Repertory Theatre’s production of “M. Butterfly.” In fact, he has been waiting for the opportunity.

“This is a dream come true for me,” said Manabat, an Asian-American who plays Song Lilang, a man who impersonates a woman and has an affair with a French diplomat during the Vietnam War era. “It’s one of the very few opportunities for me to play a lead, because it’s written specifically for an Asian-American man of my type. How many times is that going to happen? I know it’s a challenge, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Based on a true story, “M. Butterfly” previews Friday night at 8 and opens next Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. The director is Nick Mangano, who earlier directed “The Grapes of Wrath” (1996) and “Dancing at Lughnasa” (1997) at Capital Rep.

David Henry Hwang was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his play, which made its Broadway debut in 1988 and won the Tony for best play. It was nominated for seven Tonys in all and won three, and was made into a movie in 1993 by David Cronenberg.

“There are still issues in the play that are very relevant today,” said Manabat, “such as gender identity and race politics. But it’s still basically a story about two people in love with each other and what happens to them when people find out.”

Politics still pertinent

For Mangano, it’s the politics of the story that make it so fascinating and so important 20 years after it was first performed.

“This character is not just duped in love, but he makes a lot of diplomatic decisions based on his prejudices and perceptions, specifically that these people will always welcome America with open arms,” said Mangano. “Given the situation we’re in today with Iraq, I believe our nation thought we’d be embraced by a culture we know very little about. That got us into a great deal of trouble. So I think the political subplot that runs through this play is very important.”

Of course, if the love story doesn’t work, the play doesn’t work, but Mangano says his cast, particularly Manabat, is more than talented enough to pull it off.

“It’s one of the most difficult roles to cast and to play that you’re ever going to find,” said Mangano. “The actor has to be convincing as a woman, and fortunately Jake was able to do all the things required to do the role. He has to sing and act like a woman, and the entire audience has to find him alluring, and be drawn to the mystery of him.”

Manabat, who has performed in the national touring production of “Rent” and was most recently in “Gone” and “Milk-N-Honey” in New York, was born in San Francisco and spent 21⁄2 years studying at the American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre Institute at Harvard University. This will be the first time he has performed as someone impersonating a woman.

“I haven’t played a man playing a woman, but I have played a boy in drag,” said Manabat. “Obviously, there has to be an alteration in the voice, and you have to find out how your body moves as a woman. I’ve had to watch a lot of women, extremely feminine women, and I’ve also studied women who aren’t afraid of the sexuality and also the more reserved woman. I’ve spent a lot of time walking around my apartment practicing. Fortunately, I live alone.”

In its press kit for “M. Butterfly,” Capital Rep warns its audience that the play contains adult themes and nudity. None of it, however, deterred Manabat from taking the role.

“I was always conscious of what was required to do this play, and it was never a problem,” said Manabat. “I didn’t have to think twice. It was just a question of when do I get the chance to do it. This play has always been in the back of my mind.”

Manabat, who has a twin brother also in the acting profession in Los Angeles, grew up in San Francisco the son of Filipino immigrants.

“My father was a cook in a restaurant and my mother worked in retail,” said Manabat. “For some reason, my brother and I loved acting. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and while I also love television and the movies, my favorite is the theater. To me, there’s nothing like a live performance.”

Manabat says he particularly likes a relatively small venue like Capital Rep’s.

“Everyone here is so caring and loving it’s been a wonderful experience so far,” he said. “The small intimate performing space is great. It forces you to be truthful with an audience that close. There’s no room for dishonesty in your performance.”

Also in the cast with Manabat are Jeff Williams, Susan Cicarelli Caputo, Richard Lounello, Brian Massman, Myleah Misenhimer and Sue Jin Song.

“I really hadn’t visited this play since it first came out in the ’80s, but I was happy to have the opportunity to come back to Capital Rep after not being here for a while,” said Mangano. “But as soon as I started looking into the story again, I was drawn into it. It’s a great play.”

“I wanted to bring ‘M. Butterfly’ to the Capital Repertory stage because I was struck by the relevance it has today, perhaps even more so than when it debuted 20 years ago,” said Capital Rep Artistic Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill. “We continue to struggle with racial and gender stereotypes in society today, and as David Hwang himself mentioned to The New York Times last month, we’re even in an ‘M. Butterfly’ war, where we are not necessarily welcome liberators. It couldn’t be timelier.”

‘M. Butterfly’

WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany

WHEN: Previews Friday through Sunday; opens 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and runs through Feb. 10; show times 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. Sundays

HOW MUCH: $42 to $32

MORE INFO: 445-7469 or

Categories: Life and Arts

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