What is the transforming power of love? Does it evolve us into our finest natures or does it unearth the loathsome qualities that are buried in the deepest soils of our flawed souls? Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s brilliant The Changeling propels these questions into our minds and hearts courtesy of the finely wrought, emotionally fierce production of this seminal Jacobean revenge tragedy directed by Jesse Berger currently at The Red Bull Theater.
The production’s spectacle takes its artistic design (lighting, sets, costumes, effects), cues from the darkest themes of Middleton’s and Rowley’s play about beauteous, lyrical human elements gradually overthrown by malformed and wicked lusts that transcend judgment, spiritual temperance, and wholesomeness. The director’s choice of stark sets/backdrops painted a lustrous black, an absence of soft curtains or materials, the black or grey-toned costumes of the main characters contrasted with the white garb, masks and headgear of the fools and madmen, the transparent/partial-mirror reflecting partition signifying Alibius’ (the doctor), basement asylum in his house, each expertly symbolize and heighten the contrasts between goodness and evil, rationality, and madness in the production’s motifs.
There is no character in this darkly ironic and phenomenal tragedy that escapes into the light of moderation, integrity, and decency, except perhaps one. Most are fools and madmen/women when confronted with their will to power to achieve their wanton desires. In the main trope of the play, the will to exercise love without the mitigating force of empathy boils over into wanton licentiousness and murderous compulsions. These capsize the protagonists into a bloody and vengeful madness which comes to haunt and destroy them by the conclusion. On the other hand, this obsessive irrationality is contrasted with those the culture deems to be fools and madmen. Indeed, as this production subtly and cleverly emphasizes, there is little difference between those who become irrational and foment their lusts willfully harming all around them and those who refuse to be socialized into humankind’s hypocritical, cultural mores (which produce foolishness and madness), except this. The fools and madmen, perhaps are not so mad and foolish after all.
The director introduces the characters in the play’s opening by way of a briefly mannered, pantomimed scene that takes place in church where we are reminded of the mores and tenets of the culture that is leadened with hypocrisy and strict, rigid paternalism. It is in the church where nobleman Alsemero (a modulated and aptly tuned portrayal by Christian Coulson), spies Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham is wonderful in achieving the heights and depths of emotional pathos), and they fall in love “at first sight.” However, Beatrice-Joanna is promised in an arranged marriage to another nobleman. Though Alsemero is willing to “say goodbye” to this lovely creature upon hearing from her father (a fine Sam Tsoutsouvas), of her soon-to-be betrothal, he allows himself to become entangled in the intrigue of her arresting ways and her father’s hospitality to visit the castle and remain for a few days.
It is here that we note Alsemero’s lack of restraint and sound judgment. Despite the dialogue between them about wisdom, the opposite pertains. Alsemero allows himself to be encouraged by Beatrice-Joanna’s flirtations. He pursues her with amorous advances which she returns. The fruits of this forbidden love spur both on to overthrow Beatrice-Joanna’s father’s will and change the course of their destiny. They attempt to conceive of a viable plan that, with impunity, will eliminate her betrothed Piracquo (Paul Niebanck). Already, the obsession of their lusts has brought them to the edge of foolishness. It is through Beatrice-Joanna’s cunning wickedness that she alone plunges into the irrationality of a terrifying plan to effect her marriage to the gorgeous Alsemero and eliminate any possibility of a marriage to the disliked Piracquo.
This is no Romeo and Juliet, a whimsical teenage love, the avoidance of Juliet’s arranged marriage to Paris supported by Friar Lawrence and the Nurse, which ends up in two fateful suicides. This is a full blown revenge play with blood and horror, and the director and actors make the most of the subterranean undercurrents, passions and twisted torments of the characters, who justify their nefarious behaviors with benign “rational” excuses: i.e. all actions are right in the name of love.
The seemingly tender development of Beatrice-Joanna’s “love” of Alsemero is the actress’ and director’s spinning collaboration born of an acute understanding of Middleton’s and Rowley’s profound work. Beatrice-Joanna morphs from a sweet woman to the determined obsessive, who crafts her wiles to empower her destiny. Sara Topham nuances Beatrice-Joanna’s character as a fascinating reverse of her counterpart, the facially disfigured De Flores (Manoel Felciano is an absolutely amazing De Flores-subtle, lecherous, sensual, hideous, engrossing), who is as obsessed with her, as she is with Alsemero. Does he adore her enough to come up with a plan for her to stop the arranged marriage? And if he does, how will she then be able to get rid of him afterward? What payment would be enough to send him out of her father’s servitude?
Beatrice-Joanna finds De Flores’ fawning adoration of her loathsome, until she perceives she can employ his obsession to good use. The director, guiding Topham’s and Felciano’s performances, encourages us to appreciate the playwrights’ ironies; Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores are chiaroscuro images of one another. We are taken in with Beatrice-Joanna’s beauty and apparent good-will to stand up for herself and not be bullied into a loveless marriage. We are repelled by De Flores’ outer disfigurement and his inferior sycophancy and unmasculine kowtowing to her for “love.”
Yet, beyond the externals of physical attributes and cultural position, in their natures, wills and desires they are the same. Thus, they bond in blood; they understand how to plot and plan. They are clever and duplicitous and they dupe themselves and each other into fulfilling their darkest desires, thereby fitting their own and each other’s destruction. This is less an act of fate than actions of faithlessness. And most every character in the castle environs changes from light to dark, from happiness to sorrow and misery, from heavenly individuals to creatures of hell.
Parallel with the play’s dark ironies is the comic sub-plot of two gentlemen, Antonio (an excellent portrayal by Bill Army), and Franciscus (Philippe Bowgen with equivalent abandon), who behave as a food and madman becoming patients of doctor, Alibius (Christopher McCann), to pursue his well guarded wife Isabella (Michelle Beck measures her portrayal with skill). Antonio and Franciscus are obsessed with lust/love for Isabella and are willing to take great risks to fulfill their desires. But they are saved from themselves because Isabella, perhaps the only temperate and rational secondary protagonist in the play, rejects their advances after using her wiles to uncover their dissembling. Though this segment is not as compelling as that between Alsemero, Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores, nevertheless, Berger and the ensemble relay the comedic elements effectively to illustrate the themes of temperance and integrity as the playwrights fuse the development of both segments by the play’s conclusion.
The complications and grand twists which include ghostly hauntings and guilt-ridden visions comprise the two acts which clip along at a pace that thrills and engages. This is no small thanks to the exceptional teamwork by the acting ensemble and Berger’s conceptualizations and natural, seamless staging of the scenes of comedy interchanged with the intensifying events in the castle to the final realistic scenes of violence and gore. The Changeling should not be missed. You can see it at the Red Bull Theater until January 24th.