Entertainment, Off Broadway, Plays, Classic Play

The Changeling

Off Broadway, Classic Play
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street. Runs through 24 January 2016

Sara Topham and Manoel Felciano in The Changeling. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Sara Topham and Manoel Felciano in The Changeling. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

BOTTOM LINE: The more things change, the more they stay the same: this very old play about passion, betrayal, and murder is still a crowd-pleaser.

I know The Changeling very well. I first read it as a precocious high school student and considered directing it as an over-ambitious college theatre major. Despite its somewhat obscure nature, I have managed to see it produced three times, most recently in its current incarnation in Greenwich Village. As interpreted by Jesse Berger, the artistic director of Red Bull Theater, this blood-soaked, sex-drenched verse drama finally lives up to my expectations.

First performed in 1622, The Changeling follows two young women living in the same Spanish town—Beatrice-Joanna, the fickle daughter of a nobleman, and Isabella, a doctor’s wife. The former finds herself in love with one man while promised (by her father) to another, while the latter has been forbidden to leave the house for fear she will betray her marriage vows. These two plots are eventually revealed to be connected, but more importantly, they share a theme: love can make you so crazy you might not recognize yourself anymore.

The naïve Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham) seeks to solve her problem by having her fiancé murdered, but chooses the worst possible person to do the job—her father’s manservant, DeFlores (Manoel Felciano), who has a creepy, repulsive agenda of his own. Meanwhile, Isabella (Michelle Beck) has her hands full at home, which happens to be a hospital for “fools and madmen,” her husband’s patients. Let’s just say that not all the inmates are really who they say they are.

Half comedy and half tragedy, The Changeling was one of five collaborations between playwrights Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, and was a popular success in its day. Anyone who considers pre-modern drama stuffy and inaccessible would have their mind changed by this play: if severed body parts, sexual violence, and a chorus of insane people aren’t gripping enough, you may want too much. All of this lunacy is performed on a fantastic glistening black set designed by Marion Williams, by a cast that, for the most part, makes a meal of Middleton and Rowley’s delicious dialogue. Topham captures perfectly Beatrice-Joanna’s self-absorption and desperation, and Felciano goes for broke as the underling who is caught between resentment and desire. Also excellent are Bill Army and Philippe Bowgen as the would-be lovers of Isabella, two fellows who don’t quite know what they’re getting themselves into when they decide to pursue the wife of the guy who runs the local madhouse.

For the high-minded audience member, there’s also plenty to chew on: issues of gender and class identity abound. But you don’t have to be an academic to appreciate The Changeling. Its core elements—lust, jealousy, and murder—make it one of the most appealing and absorbing dramas of the rip-roaring Jacobean period. Thanks, Red Bull, for giving it the production it deserves.

(The Changeling plays at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, through January 24, 2016. The show runs 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $60-$80 and are available at redbulltheater.com or by calling 212.352.3101.)

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