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The Changeling

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sara Topham and Manoel Felciano
Photo by Carol Rosegg

All the world's a madhouse--or at least the basement of one--in Jesse Berger's new revival of The Changeling for Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. There are a few dusty mirrors upstage (tellingly, they display what's in front of them and behind them with equal clarity), but the primary features are walls of black stone, jutting out at unpredictable, dangerous angles and trapping everyone within a prison of darkness. Could you escape at any time? Theoretically; exits are apparent, after all. But you get the sense from seeing the motion onto, off of, and around the stage that traditional notions of "leaving" are pretty hopeless, and that you'll just wind up back here eventually, tasked with serving a life sentence amid the Earth's teeming bedlam dwellers.

It's a conceit of Berger's production, and to a somewhat lesser extent Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's 1622 play itself, that there's at best a hair's breadth of difference between the sane and the touched. In the so-called "outside world," after all, the privileged Beatrice¬óJoanna (Sara Topham) connives with her wretched servant, De Flores (Manoel Felciano), to murder her betrothed, even though she's already in love instead with the nobleman Alsemero (Christian Coulson). And in the local asylum, the men committed there, like Antonio (Bill Army) and Franciscus (Philippe Bowgen), seem of perfectly sound mind when it comes to wooing Isabella (Michelle Beck), the wife of the doctor in charge, and who herself sees love as a serious and elevating thing.

Which of these perspectives is crazier becomes more difficult to discern as the plots unfold, largely independently until they unite (sort of) in the final scene, and the body count rises on one side and the mental incongruities on the other. Berger pushes this notion to the hilt, not just in Marion Williams's disquieting set design, Beth Goldenberg's past-present fusion costumes, and Peter West's irritated lights, but in the very sound and motion of the actors, which veer in thrust between horror-movie realism and Grand Guignol sprawl. Dance sequences (the choreography is by Tracy Bersley) at strategic junctures throughout additionally place the characters' psyches within the realm of intentional performance, as if even the most deadly earnest of them know they're playing roles for which they're not ideally suited.

This volatile confluence of styles, however, never feels out of place because of how well it suits the material--though this relationship is not necessarily positive. The Changeling is famous yet today in no small part because of its dual authorship, which, considering the division of the writing (Middleton is generally assumed to focused most of his attention on the real-world scenes, Rowley on the daffier subplot), helps explain why the two halves don't convincingly cohere. The version of the script used here, which features some cuts and runs just over two hours (counting the intermission), contributes to this feeling of leanness, as does Berger's overall thematic approach, which, per his usual, sometimes sheds more light on the shadowy sections than is perhaps ideal. (He gets lots of laughs, a fair number of them in unexpected, or even inexplicable, places.)

If the actors struggle for consistency no less than do the words they speak, they're successful on their own terms when they're most willing to embrace the contradictions before them. Topham, in particular, gives a lip-licking, sophisticated portrayal of Beatrice-Joanna, highlighting the tart within the girl so you understand how De Flores is able to coax (or wrest?) her out of her innocence. And although Coulson brings an obvious devotion to chivalry to Alsemero, he glazes it with just the thinnest coating of danger, letting us see him as a compelling good guy with just a hint of a bad boy streak. Beck conjures a luscious vision of Isabella as a confused, torn-apart soul, and Army and Bowgen cannily balance wackiness and sincerity in their surprising and juicy inmate parts.

Except for Kimiye Corwin, who ladles on just enough sauce to Beatrice-Joanna's servant, Diaphanta, the actors who play things straight are the most likely to be bland. Felciano's feigned fierceness is oddly forgettable as applied to De Flores, and he doesn't completely justify his character's odd, codependent partnership with Beatrice-Joanna. And though their roles are more comedic in nature, Christopher McCann and Andrew Weems, who play the presiding doctor and his whip-toting heavy, inspire neither chuckles nor chills in parts that, as conceived here, ought to be critical components: our bridge between sanity and the alternative.

As a result, Berger and his company leave us a bit adrift, unable to fully accept either as a viable solution or the bridge itself as our ideal home, and that failure to overcome (or at least obscure) the play's inherent challenges mean that the evening as a whole doesn't satisfy. But the uncertainty baked into The Changeling itself becomes a kind of point. Maybe the ways we, like Middleton and Rowley's characters, pursue and achieve our goals don't make sense to outsiders. But what, ultimately, is saner than seeking--and, with any luck, discovering--the answers and the actions that will bring us into closer communion with our hearts and souls?

The Changeling
Through January 24
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
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