by Samuel L. Leiter
In 1964, when the fledgling Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center was struggling to establish its creds, Elia Kazan, America’s most famous director, undertook a production of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 Jacobean drama, The Changeling. The result was a disaster that ended the aspirations of the company’s first managerial team, and Kazan—great at what he called “social realism”—later admitted to being totally out of his depth. In his autobiography, he asked, “As for our audience, what meaning did the play or its performance have for them? None. There was no reason for them to come to it.”
Many commentators might disagree, believing The Changeling to be the best of its type, especially for its depiction of the villainous De Flores, but it’s hard to ignore its rarity on the modern stage. Interested parties, however, can view Helen Mirren in a 1974 television version produced by the BBC. England also has provided a handful of stage revivals but in America (at least in New York), Kazan’s flop appears to have been the last notable revival prior to the Red Bull Theater’s production, now at the Lucille Lortel under Jesse Berger’s direction. The Red Bull specializes in plays like this, and its version is probably better than Kazan’s, but the result falls short of whatever is needed to make this bloodfest of evil, lust, madness, treachery, and corruption theatrically palatable. The play, with its Calvinist-inspired exposure of universal human depravity, has much to offer, but few have found the key to unlocking its potential.
In the main part of the convoluted double-plot set in the Spanish coastal city of Alicante, the beauteous virgin Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham), daughter of Vermandero (Sam Tsoutsouvas), falls in love at first sight with the dashing Alsemero (Christian Coulson), although she’s betrothed to a gentleman named Alonzo (John Skelley), her father’s choice. Seeking to get rid of Alonzo so she can follow her passions, she enlists the repulsive De Flores (Manoel Felciano), her father’s servant, to murder him. As payment De Flores wants not money but the chance to deflower (check his name) Beatrice. When the startled woman expresses her horror at thus abandoning her honor to this loathsome creature, De Flores deflates her pretensions by reminding her of how ironic it is for someone so “dipped in blood” to take the high road by clinging to her “modesty.” Beatrice not only succumbs but learns to like what De Flores delivers.
The bleak complications arising from these circumstances are balanced (or unbalanced, if you will) by a secondary plot (which at least one production removed) set in an insane asylum. Here, two inmates, Antonio (Bill Army) and Franciscus (Philippe Bowgen), who are actually sane, seek to seduce Isabella (Michelle Beck), wife of Alibius (Christopher McCann), the foolish doctor who runs the place, which is overseen by the whip cracking Lollio (Andrew Weems), who also desires Isabella, intended as an unassailably virtuous counterpart to the whorish Beatrice.
In staging this material, with its high flown rhetoric, coarse double entendres, deep secrets, gory sword and knife play (including a finger sliced off to steal its ring), bedpartner switching, increasingly intrusive asides and soliloquies (think O’Neill’s Strange Interlude), and bizarre oddities (a plot device about a potion that confirms by her behavior whether a woman is still a virgin), the director must find a consistent tone. Berger’s production bounces like a billiard ball from tragic intensity to melodramatic rodomontade, from romantic lovemaking to Grand Guignol ferocity, from bantering sex comedy (reminiscent of The Taming of the Shrew) to bedlam farce. He gets points for the show’s liveliness and clear diction, but never finds whatever it is that that would allow the characters to be fundamentally believable despite the extreme situations and relationships the playwrights impose on them.
The Red Bull’s cast ranges from the respectable (Tsoutsouvas, Topham, Felciano, and Beck) to the competent, but no one walks off with any honors. I question the casting of Felciano as the ugly De Flores; his good looks are intact except for makeup suggesting moderate scarring on one side of his face. This diminishes the Beauty and the Beast struggle Beatrice puts up against his seductive wiles, and weakens their Richard III/Lady Ann-type seduction scene.
Marion Williams’s simple, black-walled unit set, showing the asylum inmates through upstage mirror/windows, is suitably gloomy, and Peter West’s lighting keeps things properly creepy. Most of Beth Goldenberg’s costumes are in the standard blend of present day and traditional modes, but she has the white-garbed crazies wear huge, phantasmagorical masks and headdresses throughout, even though they make most sense during their strange dance late in the play. Interestingly, Alibius dresses much like a well-known Jacobean illustration of a “changeling,” although exactly who the playwrights intended for this role remains vague. As others have noted, the title probably refers to all the characters who reveal alternate sides to their personas.
One must commend the Red Bull for its courage in producing challenging plays like The Changeling, even when the difficulties of making them work can be insurmountable.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Through January 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).