Astonishing disparities between characters’ exteriors and interiors lie at the very heart of The Changeling, the 1622 tragicomedy by English playwrights Thomas Middleton and William Rowley that closed this past weekend at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on New York's Christopher Street. Though only one character in the play was identified as such in the 17th century, at least a few others reveal themselves in ways that startle, shock and, ultimately, silence theatergoers as much today as then.
Kudos to the Red Bull Theater troupe once again for bringing attention to a drama that, for all its unusual qualities, is rarely performed (and, for that matter, not even read an awful lot in college English courses). It is strong stuff, a product of an era of brief, uneasy creative freedom that saw London theaters satisfy audiences’ yen for violence, sex and barely veiled criticism of the privileged. (The theater, in existence for a little more than a decade, takes its name from a leading playhouse of Shakespeare’s time that sorely tested the patience of the Stuart monarchy—and, like so many similar venues, was closed by the authorities when the Puritans, under Oliver Cromwell, controlled the government.)
I have seen two prior productions from the company: John Ford’s tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore last spring and Ben Jonson’s satire Volpone nearly four years ago (see my review of the latter here). Both shows impressed me, so I was looking forward to this production. I wasn’t disappointed.
Helen Mirren, Brian Cox and Stanley Baker performed in a 1974 telecast of the tragicomedy for the BBC’s "Play of the Month” (found in this YouTube clip). Even sterling performers like these, however, could not prepare viewers for the visceral shock experienced at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
It all traces back to Jacobean theater—essentially, the two decades (1603-1625) that roughly corresponded with the reign of King James I, and which upped the quotient of murder and mayhem served by Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. Revenge dramas were pushed to the point where they became dramas of horror; illicit love figured far more prominently; and dramatists became far more interested in staging their works in foreign locales such as Spain and Italy—perhaps partly as a veiled attempt to examine their own society, particularly its corrupt court and aristocracy.
These elements can be found aplenty in The Changeling. The plot is driven by Beatrice-Joanna, a privileged Spanish lady who quickly decides that she must have the young, attractive visitor Alsemero. The problem is that she already has a fiancé, Alonso de Piracquo. But she is so willful and unscrupulous that she is even willing to use the servant of her father Vermandero, De Flores, to murder Piracquo.
But she doesn’t expect the enormously steep price exacted by De Flores, whose ugliness is so pronounced as to provoke her never-ending scorn: Not all the gold she can give him, or social status, but her virginity. Dreading that he will expose her role in the murder plot, she yields to his advances, then is amazed to find herself in a passionate affair with him. His willingness to do anything for her—even present her with the finger of the dead Piracquo, attached with all his dying strength to his engagement ring—excites her ("The east is not more beauteous than his service"), leading her to carry on with De Flores even after she can now marry the original object of her scheming, Alsemero.
“Our eyes … are rash sometimes, and tell us wonders / Of common things, which when our judgments find, / They can then check the eyes and call them blind,” Beatrice-Joanna tells Alsemero. It’s a warning not heeded by nearly all the males in the play, who cannot believe that a physically lovely woman such as Beatrice-Joanna could be so morally hideous. She has come a long way from the woman in prayer glimpsed outside a church at the start of the play.
As many of their Jacobean theater peers did, Middleton and Rowley employed a subplot, a kind of funhouse mirror on the main action. This, too, involves a deceptive female: Isabella, the much younger wife of Dr. Alibius, who runs an insane asylum. While toying with two men who have faked their way into the Bedlam-like institution, she still rejects their advances, in counterpoint to the decline into adultery and murder of Beatrice-Joanna. (Rowley, known for his comic roles, is believed to have contributed most heavily to this portion of the play.)
Director Jesse Berger used the grim set, carefully contrived by set designer Marion Williams, and the matching dark period clothing from costume designer Beth Goldenberg to evoke the atmosphere of manipulation, madness and murder. But he was best at coaxing vivid performances from his cast, especially the women. Especially worthy of note are Sara Topham, who captured Beatrice-Joanna in all her caprice and moral deterioration; Michelle Beck, who embodied Isabella in all her sly amusement; and Kimiye Corwin, who depicted the maid of Beatrice-Joanna, Diaphanta, in all her earthiness and vacillation over pleasing her lady, even if it meant yielding to her trick of bedding the latter’s husband on his wedding night lest he discover that his bride is not a virgin.
Among the males, the ones who appear to best advantage are Christopher McCann and Andrew Weems as the jealous Dr. Alibius and his put-upon but lecherous assistant in running the madhouse, Lollio, and Manoel Felciano as disfigured, obsessed, plot-galvanizing De Flores.