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Theatre in Review: The Changeling (Red Bull Theater/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Sara Topham, Manoel Feliciano. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Believe me, you've never met anyone quite like Beatrice-Joanna, the leading lady -- heroine is far too kind a word -- of The Changeling. Unhappy with her fiancé, she has him murdered, enlisting the grotesquely ugly servant, who pines for her, to do the deed. When the killer demands more than florins in payment, she is all too happy to meet his, er, demands. She latches on to a new love, and, for fear that her lost honor will be discovered, puts a veiled substitute into her bed with her husband on her wedding night. After that, she has the unhappy young lady burned to death. It's no wonder that Walter Kerr, channeling Erle Stanley Gardner, suggested that a good alternative title for Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's play might be The Case of the Vicious Virgin.

Welcome to the world of Jacobean revenge tragedy, where schemes are piled upon schemes and evil runs riot until the eleventh hour, where the good are clueless, the bad are endlessly inventive, and payback, when it comes, is swift and terrible. Coming so soon after the golden age of Shakespeare, it's no wonder that these playwrights suffer in comparison; next to him, the works of Ford, Webster, Middleton, and Rowley seem like so many salacious potboilers. Yet, given their brazen admixture of sex, violence, and rude comedy, these plays seem very much of this moment. There's something very Quentin Tarantino about The Changeling, not to say American Horror Story.

With elements that include a disfigured villain, sexual intrigue in an insane asylum, a mutilated corpse, a potion that detects virginity in those who drink it, and a heroine who revels in the commingling of lust and murder, The Changeling is a prime example of the genre. At its best, Jesse Berger's production is a glittering black comedy, unleashing alternative waves of shock and laughter, but not everyone is up to the task at hand, especially given some of the curveballs thrown their way by the authors.

The clear standout among the principals is Manoel Felciano as De Flores, servant and hatchet-man to Beatrice-Joanna. The right side of his face covered with red scars and one eye permanently shut, he aches with longing for his mistress, until he discovers the way to her heart through murder and mayhem. Once he seizes control of the situation, putting her in his sexual thrall, he dominates the production, enmeshing himself (and her) in ever-greater crimes. (Not for nothing do the program notes suggest that it is a curdled retelling of Beauty and the Beast.) He is no one-dimensional villain; the moment when he is accosted by the ghost of a victim carries a real tremble of fear, and he is especially gripping in the climactic moment of confession. ("Yes, and the while I couple with your mate/At barley-break; now we are left in hell.") He raises real shudders when murdering Alonzo, Beatrice-Joanna's unwanted lover, and neatly handles the grisly business of severing of Alonzo's finger, presenting it and the ring it bears to Beatrice-Joanna. "Some ill thing haunts the house," frets Beatrice-Joanna, and indeed it is Felciano, spreading the odor of evil wherever De Flores goes.

Less successful is Sara Topham, who, as Beatrice-Joanna, works the upper register of her voice -- presumably in pursuit of maintaining an illusion of innocence -- in a manner that can be grating. Topham creates a rather heedless young woman who gradually steps down to corruption, rather in the manner of a film noir heroine. ("Vengeance begins," she notes bitterly. "Murder, I see, is followed by more sins.") In the early scenes, she comes across as brash, girlish, and rather too flirtatious; she's not strictly convincing as the kind of woman who would kill to protect her reputation. This isn't entirely her fault -- I really have no idea how one credibly handles the business of the potion which causes virgins to sneeze, cry, and fall into a funk -- and, in any case, she improves enormously in the later passages when she has become De Flores' bed partner in crime. ("Push, you forget yourself/A woman dipp'd in blood and talk of modesty," he taunts her.) Similarly, Christian Coulson, as Alsemero, the innocent object of Beatrice-Joanna's affections, initially comes across as callow, dull, and lacking in energy, but he gains real power in the second act, when he comes face-to-face with the evil at the heart of his marriage.

It's hard to know what anyone could do with the play's second plot, in which two young swains disguise themselves as madmen to gain entry into the asylum run by the foolish dotard Alibius and his toothsome young wife, Isabella. Allegedly comic, there's almost nothing funny about it, filled as it is with leaden sexual suggestion and staged against a background of raving lunatics. Andrew Weems gets a couple of laughs as Lollio, Alibius' assistant, but Christopher McCann (who played De Flores in the last New York revival of The Changeling) as Alibius, Michelle Beck as Isabella, and Bill Army as Antonio, the more ardent of Isabella's two pursuers, can only slog their way through their scenes, which only connect with the main plot at the very last minute.

In smaller roles, there are solid contributions by Sam Tsoutsouvas as Beatrice-Joanna's father, Paul Niebanck as the brother of the murdered Alonzo, and Kimiye Corwin as Beatrice-Joanna's too-faithful servant, who gets her just deserts for helping to deceive Alsemero in the wedding bed.

As long as De Flores is going about his satanic business, Berger's direction keeps the action moving, driving it toward a terrifying pitch as evil deeds come to light. In addition, Tracy Bersley has choreographed two sequences -- one at the beginning of each act -- that help to introduce the characters and establish the right tone of propriety, just before the savagery begins. Marion Williams' asymmetric, multilevel, all-black set, with a pair of upstage mirrors that also function as windows into the asylum, is an appropriately sinister piece of work, although, with the black-brown palette of Beth Goldenberg's costumes (which combine period details with contemporary silhouettes), a certain visual monotony sets in. (She does dress the asylum residents in white, with weird masks and elaborate headgear.) The cause of visual variety is helped enormously by Peter West's sharply directional lighting, which often requires only a couple of beams to make a stunning look. The key contribution of Erin Kennedy Lunsford's hair and makeup design involves the transformation of the handsome Felciano into the hideous De Flores. Ryan Rumery's sound design includes the violent tolling of bells and several musical passages that heighten the mood.

If you have any interest in the Jacobeans, The Changeling is a must, if only because it might not come around for another couple of decades. (It has enjoyed only two major New York productions in the last half century.) Berger, the only director in town who routinely draws on the Jacobeans, may be onto something, however: After only four centuries, these blood-and-intrigue melodramas may be coming back into their own. -- David Barbour

(11 January 2016)

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