The Changeling: Theater review by Adam Feldman
Classical theater is in danger of becoming a thing we only read about in class. Even the most esteemed plays from before the 20th century—at least those by playwrights not named William Shakespeare—are in ever shorter supply, and only a few brave companies are committed to fanning their embers. Thank the ancient muses, then, for Jesse Berger and his Red Bull Theater, who for more than a decade have been staging gutsy, gory and well-versed productions of Jacobean mainstays. Some, like The Revenger’s Tragedy, have been palpable hits; others have been honorable misses. The Changeling falls somewhere in between: It’s a solid account of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s challengingly constructed 1622 play, a sordid tragicomedy of unchastity, murder and deception.
“Our citadels are placed conspicuous to outward view on promontories’ tops,” says Spanish nobleman Vermandero (a hale Sam Tsoutsouvas). “But within are secrets.” And what a hive of hidden iniquity his castle turns out to be. His daughter, the seemingly virtuous Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham), lusts for the comely Alsemero (Christian Coulson) but is engaged to another man, whom she arranges to have murdered by De Flores (Manoel Felciano), the disfigured servant who has been stalking her. De Flores then blackmails her and (true to his name!) deflowers her, leading to a climax of guilt, deception and bloody comeuppance.
The play takes some very strange turns indeed—a potion to detect virginity, a bed trick, a gruesome finger removal—and Berger directs it with intelligent sincerity. Felciano brings unexpected sensitivity to his brutish role, and Stratford Shakespeare Festival vet Topham charts a convincing journey through privilege, self-discovery and ruin. Nearly half of The Changeling, however, is devoted to a secondary story, set in a madhouse, that comically mirrors the main story’s themes but has no other connection to it. Despite committed zaniness from the cast—especially Bill Army as a man pretending to be a fool so he can woo the wife of the jealous doctor who runs the looney bin (don’t ask)—the humor of these scenes is hard to render, and the back-and-forth between plots gets tiring. The elegance and clarity of this Changeling are laudable, but a stronger sense of the grotesque might make it more attractive to verse-averse audiences.—Adam Feldman
Lucille Lortel Theatre (Off Broadway). By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. Dir. Jesse Berger. With Manoel Felciano, Sara Topham. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
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