If you don’t know Red Bull Theatre Company, you should. This long-standing New York company is dedicated to producing Jacobean works (with a recent drift into more contemporary work). Although their budget limits them to one or two productions per year, Red Bull is as important a company as the celebrated Theatre For a New Audience. Their ambitious and skillful productions of lesser known early modern plays are offset by a dynamic reading series that interweaves the corpus of non-Shakespearean drama with contemporary interpretations of classical work.
This was my first visit to their new house, the Lucille Lortel. Although I must confess to missing the St. Clements Theatre, a more flexible space that was masterfully used in previous production of traverse-staged The Witch of Edmonton, the Lortel’s slight shabbiness was much better suited for their staging of Middleton and Rowley’s rarely-seen tragedy, The Changeling.
Marion Williams’ dark and gloomy set eschews the grandeur of Vermandero’s castle, instead choosing to focus on the creepiest crevices of the fortress, where things of darkness lurk around every corner. The darkest of them all, Deflores, played by Manoel Felciano, does just that, stalking Sara Topham’s Beatrice-Joanna throughout her home and entrapping her in a stronghold that closes in on her as she tries to escape. The conflation of the madhouse and the castle is particularly effective in the segue from the masque into Beatrice-Joanna and Alsemero’s wedding.
The pace of the play was brisk and effective, resulting in terrific tension in the first half, slowing in the second half, as the Middleton and Rowley’s plot becomes increasingly convoluted (read: ridiculous) with the inclusion of the virginity test and the murder of Diaphanta. My biggest issue with The Changeling lay in the casting of the two leads. Manoel Felciano is a terrific actor, but also quite good-looking for the “ominous ill-fac’d fellow” (2.1.53) that revolts Beatrice-Joanna so entirely. Instead, Felciano looks like a battle-scarred hero who eventually earns Beatrice-Joanna’s love through his warped devotion–that begins with stalking–and seems, in this case, to end with twisted heroism. Certainly, the play allows for a guilty affection rising between the two, but to play such an angle resists the ugliness in Beatrice-Joanna’s recognition that “I am forc’d to love thee now / ‘Cause thou provids’t so carefully for my honor” (5.1.57-8), which frames an alternative narrative of manipulation and abuse that reflects on Isabella’s predicament, locked in a madhouse and exposed to sexual predators by her ignorant husband. Red Bull has been unafraid to tackle such Jacobean brutality before, notably in their extraordinary 2008 Women Beware Women, so it surprised me to see the director Jessie Berger taking the lighter route.
But this is not to say that The Changeling isn’t worth your time. The company’s attention to detail manifests itself in careful casting of minor roles, incluing Christopher McCann’s repellant-yet-harmless Alibus and New York stalwart Sam Tsoutsouvas’s Vermandero. Berger’s The Changeling is funny, wicked, and utterly disturbing, and it offers a compelling argument for the ongoing presence of this underrated play on the contemporary stage.
Christopher McCann as Alibus and Andrew Weems as Lollio. Credit: Carol Rosegg.