Sunday, January 10, 2016

THE CHANGLING: Rare Production of Jacobean Drama Tries to Capture Grand Style of Blood and Lust -- With Mixed Results

Red Bull Theater Presents THE CHANGLING

Red Bull Theater and its founding artistic director Jesse Berger are well known for their over-the-top productions of blood soaked Jacobean dramas. So it surprises me to have to say that its current presentation of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 17th Century play The Changeling is rather tame in its staging and rocky in its embrace of heightened language. 

Oh, there is plenty of stage blood, and even a severed finger in the mix, but this is a play that is drenched in secrets, lies, treachery, and unbridled lust along with the gore, and it needs to engulf us in a tale of a pair of hell-bound souls who are beyond redemption.

The Changeling begins almost as if it were going to be a romantic comedy.  Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham) is betrothed to Alonzo (John Skelley), but is smitten at the very first sight of Alsemero (Christian Coulson), a handsome stranger who crosses her path. How will she dump the fiancĂ© in order to get her heart’s desire? 

This could be the lead off into a madcap romp, perhaps one involving wily servants, that ends happily with the lovers united.  But things quickly veer in another direction altogether when Beatrice-Joanna concludes that the only way to rid herself of Alonzo is to have him killed.  

Without giving a thought to possible consequences, she enlists the aid of De Flores (Manoel Felciano), a servant in her father’s household, a man she despises but who has long lusted after her and is primed to do her bidding.  When the deed is done (the severed finger is the proof he offers to her), De Flores declines the gold she throws at him and insists that she give herself to him instead. Before you know it, the two are mutually bound together in their shared guilt, while Beatrice-Joanna tries to figure out how to hide what she is doing from Alsemero, whom she is now free to wed.

There is also a comic subplot that takes place in a madhouse and a clever bit of chicanery (involving another servant) by which Beatrice-Joanna contrives to hide her loss of virginity. But for all intent, this is still a moral tragedy, and tragedy steeped in utter corruption is what should be at the core of the production. 

Instead, what we get is more like melodrama, with an underplayed sense of sexual madness (we hear quite a bit about it, but see very little of it). Even the play’s dark humor has been mined for laughs rather than for the way its sardonic quality reflects the overall tone.  And while the cast generally performs, projects, and enunciates the unfamiliar dialog well enough for the audience to understand, there is an unfortunate mix of elocution styles.  Some of the actors (Sam Tsoutsouvas as Beatrice-Joanna’s father is a prime example) manage to make the 17th Century language seem most naturalistic, with the words falling “trippingly off the tongue,” as the playwrights’ contemporary William Shakespeare put it in Hamlet. Others, however, speak with unfortunately modern cadences, so that, once more, the production lacks consistency.

Admittedly, it does feel as if there are two different plays that were cobbled together long, long ago.  (Presumably, Middleton was responsible for the traditional Jacobean tragic scenes, while Rowley tackled the comic elements.) What is missing here is a clear enough vision to bring the two sides together. 

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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