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The Changeling

Rare revival of the Jacobean revenge tragedy by Middleton and Rowley gets a vigorous and straightforward though bland production by Red Bull Theater.

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Sara Topham as Beatrice and Manoel Felciano as De Flores in a scene from Red Bull Theater’s production of “The Changeling” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Sara Topham as Beatrice and Manoel Felciano as De Flores in a scene from Red Bull Theater’s production of “The Changeling” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

As part of its 2015-16 “Season of Scandal,” Red Bull Theater continues its investigation of the plays of Thomas Middleton with the Jacobean revenge tragedy, The Changeling, written in collaboration with William Rowley. This follows Red Bull’s full production of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and Women Beware Women, as well as their staged readings of The Roaring Girl, A Mad World, My Masters, A Cheap Maid in Cheapside and A Trick to Catch the Old One (performed this January 18), probably making Middleton the most produced of the Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights in New York after Shakespeare. While Jesse Berger’s revival is vigorous and straightforward, it is also rather bland. For a story that is so outrageous, this Changeling while easy to follow is much too tame.

Set in Alicante in exotic Spain, as are many of the more shocking British plays of this period, The Changeling’s heroine Beatrice-Joanna has just been betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo in an arranged marriage set up by her father when she sees Alsemero and she falls in love at first sight as does he. Alsemero offers to challenge Alonzo to a duel, but Beatrice fears he will be caught and sentenced to death. She decides to hint to her father’s ugly, twisted servant De Flores that she would like Alonzo out of the way. Unknown to her, he lusts after her and assumes that the payment will be in sexual favors but she has only intended to pay him in gold.

After De Flores accomplishes the deed, he blackmails Beatrice into sleeping with him which transform her into a wanton. When her father approves the marriage to Alsemero, the new husband is suspicious of her virginity and gives her a potion in order to test her. Fearing exposure, Beatrice sends her waiting woman Diaphanta to him on her wedding night. Although Alsemero is at first convinced of his wife’s honesty, he later sees Beatrice in the garden too intimate with De Flores and he guesses that she is unfaithful. Quick retribution follows.

A secondary parallel, comic plot believed to have been Rowley’s contribution to the play takes place in a madhouse run by the doddering Dr. Alibius. Having married Isabella, a young wife, and unable to satisfy her sexually, he fears she will be unfaithful and asks his servant Lollio to lock her up in the asylum. Two men in love with her, Franciscus and Antonio, pretending to be a madman and a fool, respectively, get themselves committed to the establishment so that they can be near her. Isabella, a virtuous wife, proves more than a match for these suitors, as well as the horny Lollio.

Bill Army as Antonio and Michelle Beck as Isabella in a scene from Red Bull Theater’s production of The Changeling (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Bill Army as Antonio and Michelle Beck as Isabella in a scene from Red Bull Theater’s production of The Changeling (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The title, “The Changeling,” can refer to several of the characters, based on its three meanings. The loathsome De Flores may be the changeling as he is an ugly person pretending to be respectable. Antonio, pretending to be a madman instead of his real self, has also been taken to be the changeling of the title. By the same token, Beatrice who begins as a pure young girl and is transformed into a depraved sexual sophisticate could also be counted as yet another changeling. Several of the other characters also go through transformations in the course of the plot so that the title could refer to all of them.

The production makes several definite choices which are problematic to the overall effectiveness of this outrageous play. Visually, the production is devoid of color. Marion Williams’ unit set is all black (except for windows which reveal the inmates of the madhouse in alternate scenes). While this allows for easy transitions, it is too grim for this dark story. The costumes by Beth Goldenberg are black for the main story (except for three characters who also have dark brown accessories) and all white for the madhouse denizens. This black/white dichotomy for characters passionate enough to commit murder for sexual desires seems rather trite and obvious. However, the uncredited masks for the madmen, most likely the work of the costume designer, are quite impressive.

The interpretations are also open to question. Although she should be demure before her sexual awakening, Sara Topham plays Beatrice as experienced and sophisticated which allows her nowhere to take her character. While the beauty and the beast theme is much in evidence, Manoel Felciano’s make-up as the ugly De Flores fails to make him the monstrous embodiment of the play’s description. Christian Coulson’s Alsemero is described by his friend Jasperino as asexual and he seems to have taken this as the basis for his character. As a result he is extremely bland, as is John Skelley’s Alonzo, so that we never see what Beatrice is supposed to see in these men.

Sam Tsoutsouvas gives his usual solid and sturdy performance as Beatrice’s deceived father Vermandero, but in this context something more is needed. He is, after all, harboring two monsters under his roof. As the murdered Alonzo’s brother Tomazo, Paul Niebanck is much more dynamic than the other Spanish noblemen but he is unfortunately seen only briefly. Also having the right style is Kimiye Corwin who is completely caught up in the plotting as the willing Diaphanta.

Christopher McCann as Dr. Alibius and Andrew Weems as Lollio in a scene from Red Bull Theater’s production of “The Changeling” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Christopher McCann as Dr. Alibius and Andrew Weems as Lollio in a scene from Red Bull Theater’s production of “The Changeling” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The madhouse scenes are more effective though this part of the plot is never very well tied to the main plot except as comic relief. Bill Army is quite raunchy as Isabella’s lover Antonio pretending to be a fool. Philippe Bowgen as Franciscus masquerading as a madman is equally proficient. Isabella is turned into a three-dimensional character by Michelle Beck, remarkably so as the part is underwritten. While Andrew Weems’ lascivious Lollio seems a bit too obvious, Christopher McCann (who appeared in the Theater for a New Audience’s 1997 production as De Flores) makes little impression as the elderly Alibius.

Red Bull Theater’s production of The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley is a rare chance to see this important Jacobean tragedy. Under the tutelage of vocal/text consultant Elizabeth Smith, the diction is always clear and understandable. Unfortunately, while director Jesse Berger has chosen to err on the side of caution with a subdued and restrained production, something more outrageous might have been more memorable.

The Changeling (through January 24, 2016)

Red Bull Theater

Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Varick Streets, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.RedBullTheater.com

Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (575 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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