Jacobean theatre can be oddly reassuring in its base pleasures. There’s almost always ample bloodshed, transgressive sexual acts, questionable morals, and violent punishment for those transgressions. Order is derived from disorder and it’s often a sexy, bloody mess getting there. What’s not to love? Jacobean tragicomedy The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley looks at the creeping corruption of honour through desire. Jesse Berger’s uneven production for Red Bull Theater offers some unique insight into the play and a killer lead performance.
Female characters do not often fare well with the Jacobean playwrights. I wonder if there is a single one of these plays that does not revolve around confirming who is and who is not a “whore.” Was there nothing else to worry about back in the day? Yet, with this blatant misogyny we immediately get to the heart of a contemporary conversation about women and power, which can be a fascinating lens through which to look at these issues.
Berger’s production of The Changeling gives a window into issues of power and gender with a modern eye. Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham) is betrothed to Alonzo (John Skelly). But when she meets the rakish Alsemero (Christian Coulson), she’s immediately drawn to him. At the same time, she is fending off the constant attentions of her father’s loyal but deformed servant, De Flores (Manoel Felciano). She plots to manipulate De Flores’s feelings for her and have him murder Alonzo, eliminating her obstacle to marrying Alsemero. She imagines De Flores as a murderer would be forced to flee and she would be left with the suitor of her choosing and no other messy entanglements.
Beatrice-Joanna is a woman seeking her own path in a world where her father chooses everything for her. But to break with rigid tradition, she opts for murder as her solution. In a society where she has no power, she must rely on and manipulate the power of others to her advantage. She is heartless in her quest to keep her virginal honor (the only currency she possesses) and that does not stop her from committing dishonorable acts to do so. Naturally her machinations come back to haunt her.
Beatrice-Joanna’s manipulation is met in kind through De Flores. In this production, Berger plays with that tension throughout. What Beatrice-Joanna wants, accepts, consents to, and acquiesces to under duress are very different things. De Flores turns out to be a worthy adversary and makes it impossible for her to escape the dark bargain she struck with him. She is violently repulsed by him and yet drawn to him. It’s an unexpected alliance and, as played by Felciano, De Flores is a compelling and magnetic presence. There is a push and pull to their power struggle with a sexualized gloss that feels very much of our time (imagine a juicy true-crime episode).
Felciano is the main attraction here. He’s got leading man good looks under a layer of disfiguring make-up and he draws you in to look closer. He may move furtively around the dark corners of the castle but he is direct and forthright with Beatrice-Joanna. His honesty feels in sharp contrast to her deceptions. His lingering guilt over the murder makes him strangely sympathetic and with some sense of moral code, despite his many distasteful acts. The ongoing consequences of his actions feel as if they are starting to pile up for him. Beatrice-Joanna, on the other hand, keeps adding manipulation to manipulation with delusional gaiety as if she can escape all consequences if she just acts fast enough.
Unfortunately, Topham is not quite a match for Felciano. She struggles to find her inner Lady Macbeth. She is in sync with the bright, ingénue aspects of Beatrice-Joanna’s character. But the steely, dark interior where she is wrestling with her own conflicting desire does not get played out as much as it should.
In addition, there is a subplot about a jealous doctor (Christopher McCann) who runs an asylum and is worried about his wife (Michelle Beck) straying. The comic-relief in the asylum segments never quite hits the mark and even the way Berger moves the asylum inmates in and out of the space feels internally illogical. Michelle Beck and Bill Army (as one of her suitors) enjoy a brief, lusty scene as part of this subplot and they rise to the challenge, but I wish for them a better subplot in the future.