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.
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.
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