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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
In the case of The Changeling, a collaboration between Thomas Middleton and William Rowley first performed in 1622, there's a lack of subtlety to the play's unambiguous moralizing and a strange off-kilter feeling to the weaving together of separate dramatic and comedic plot lines that render it somewhat inert in its latest production, directed by Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Despite the employment of an ensemble cast as capable as it is large and richly atmospheric spatial and sound design, Red Bull's Changeling never quite builds the salacious, seldom-performed work to the level of dynamism for which its productions are known.
The play's primary concern is with the fall of Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham), who makes a deal with the devil—in the form of the physically monstrous De Flores (Manoel Felciano)—to kill off her betrothed Alonzo (John Skelley) so that she can marry her new suitor Alsemero (Christian Coulson). Expecting to pay for the deed in gold, she instead pays the far greater price of her virginity. Thus begins a descent that, as anyone who's seen a tragedy before will quickly recognize, will end no less bloodily than it started.
A contrasting narrative thread takes place in a madhouse run by the jealous Alibius (Christopher McCann), where his wife Isabella (Michelle Beck)—the textbook version of modesty—is pursued by several men, including Alibius's assistant Lollio (Andrew Weems) and the insanity-faking patient Antonio (Bill Army). Holding fast to her morals, Isabella refuses to validate her husband's suspicions and humiliates the men seeking to tempt her.
While the two plots pair in contrasting their female characters, they don't meld all that cleanly. The relationship between the two feels more competitive than symbiotic, and rather than the comedic becoming tinged with the tragic or vice versa, the back and forth between the two creates a feeling of constantly changing gears, never getting to coast long enough in either.
The Beatrice-Joanna/De Flores thread feels far meatier, more fun, and more satisfying here. It benefits from the strength of the charge between Topham and Felciano, whose Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores feel like some kind of bizarro-world Desdemona and Iago out of an Othello fan's alternate-reality fantasy (that's a compliment) where the lady was a tramp all along and the honest man is so honest that not even his name can mask his intentions. They're masters of the unsavory, and it's fun to watch them spin out their web of deceit even as they unmistakably become caught in it.
Berger's care in constructing this part of the world is evident. He also seems to have a fair amount of fun with the show's gorier moments which are pulled off with clever effects by the play's design team. Compared to this, the madhouse subplot is less exciting. Beck is a solid anchor and gives a performance as crisp as Lollio's impressive whip cracking (kudos to company Whip Expert Martin Noyes). However, the section feels uneven due to manic timing and staging and choreography that can come across as haphazard, perhaps in an attempt to capture the unhinged nature of the madhouse.
Still, though The Changeling, (the production or the play itself) isn't without its follies, Red Bull does a service to resurrect the play. The production is delicately considered on whole. It also showcases a number of enjoyable featured performances, such as Kimiye Corwin's as Beatrice's waiting woman Diaphanta, Sam Tsoutsouvas's as her father Vermandero, and Justin Blanchard's as Alsemero's friend Jasperino. More significantly, though, Beatrice-Joanna is one of the more interesting female protagonists of the era, and though Isabella is a fairly traditional character, it's quite compelling to see women of such substance at the center of the play's two orbits. Their experiences touch on many interesting questions about the nature of love, madness, sin, and righteousness. Grappling with these questions is messy work for the characters and for us; we can only hope that for us, it's not quite as bloody.