Laura Kolb (Baruch College)
What’s the price of a man’s life? This question lies at the heart of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 tragedy, The Changeling. The plot unspools from a commissioned murder. Smitten with Alsemero but betrothed to Alonzo di Piracquo, the lovely, ruthless Beatrice-Joanna enlists her father’s servant De Flores, to kill Piracquo. After the murder, De Flores—whose hideous appearance earns him his mistress’ loathing—approaches Beatrice-Joanna with a grisly “token” of the deed: the dead man’s severed finger. The finger itself bears another token, a ring Joanna had given Piracquo before her fancy strayed, which she offers to De Flores by way of recompense, noting that the sparkling gem is worth “near three hundred ducats.” When he sneers at the sum—“twill hardly buy a capcase for one’s conscience”—Joanna raises her offer to “three thousand golden florins” and, when that’s not enough, to “all the wealth I have in gold and jewels.” Insulted, De Flores refuses monetary “salary” and demands Beatrice-Joanna’s virginity as payment. The issue of price becomes one of commensurability: the unspoken logic of De Flores’s argument runs that a life is priceless and so, too, is a woman’s honor. De Flores seems to relish the prospect both of consummating his desires and receiving an invaluable “treasure” that Beatrice-Joanna had tried desperately to preserve for her beloved Alsemero. “The wealth of all Valencia,” he tells her, “Shall not buy/ My pleasure from me.”
In the Red Bull Theater’s stark, psychological presentation of The Changeling, directed by Jesse Berger, the scene of bargaining between De Flores (Manoel Felciano) and Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham) is riveting. Berger’s staging underscores the girl’s helplessness. She is, for much of the scene, on the ground, half-supine, vainly trying to crab-crawl backwards away from her hired assassin and would-be lover. De Flores crouches beside her, his hand creeping ever further under her long skirt as they tensely negotiate the price of a life. Her terror is palpable—at several points, her body contorts in unmistakable pain and fear—but so are her intelligence and strength of will. In the final moment, Topham’s Beatrice-Joanna doesn’t merely give in; she calculates her surrender. As De Flores hoists her up, she suddenly, decisively, wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him. Whether this is an act of desire or a performance born of desperation—or both—matters less than the fact that Beatrice-Joanna is now unmistakably in charge. Selling the one thing she has that De Flores values, she abruptly exits the patriarchal economy in which her honor—located in her body but never really hers—was a currency to be traded between men. Her drearily predictable journey from daughter to wife catastrophically derailed, she trades her body for De Flores’ silence, his adoration, his future service. In so doing she becomes, if only briefly, her own.
Topham’s performance in the play’s central role is remarkable for its complexity, mingling humor with horror and ardor with calculation. Her first appearance on stage, a dumbshow of her first encounter with Aselmero (Christian Coulson), shows us a sweetly eager ingénue. Under a sober black mantilla, her eyes sparkle; at the sight of the young man, her face breaks into an astonished smile. This is a girl palpably alive to the pleasure, the sheer wonder, of existence. She never quite loses this posture of surprised amusement, even as the novelties she encounters become horrors rather than wonders. “Bless me!” she cries after her eventual wedding to Alsemero, peeping into her new husband’s closet and finding an array of amber bottles. The cry—a mixture of curiosity and surprise with tinge of tart judgment (what’s he doing with so many potions and oils?)—elicits a wave of laughter from the audience. Like her, we are tickled and intrigued by the odd contents of this private space. Later, she utters the same half-alarmed, half-amused exclamation, crying “Bless me!” as the ghost of her dead fiancé slides past her in the castle hall. Quivering with dread, Topham’s Beatrice-Joanna still retains her capacity for amazement. It is as though she is fascinated by the sheer improbability of the part she plays—a sweet girl, a daughter, a bride!—in the convoluted tricks and grisly deaths born of her first violent desire.
Topham’s approach to the role encapsulates an important dynamic of the production overall. There can be a temptation, when mounting Jacobean tragedy, to let sensationalistic content—which is rarely lacking—become the sole focal point. In addition to sex, murder, an ashen-faced ghost and a severed finger, The Changeling includes a bed trick, a virginity-testing potion (used twice), a maid shot with a gun then burned in a fire, and a climatic murder-suicide by stabbing. John Ford’s even bloodier, bawdier ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which Red Bull produced last spring, notoriously features incest as well as a string of revenges. Yet in that show, as in this, Red Bull offered up its shocks without sacrificing psychological nuance. According to its mission statement, the company dedicates itself to mounting (mostly) Jacobean plays marked by “vigorously heightened language.” Such language is a powerful vehicle for sensation, but it is not only that, Red Bull recognizes; in the hands of many period playwrights, it produced powerful effects of inwardness. The Changeling’s cast showcases this inwardness, delivering Middleton and Rowley’s text frankly and intelligently, with the result that the plot’s excesses emerge from clearly drawn motivations and desires.
The production’s spare scenic design (Marion Williams) reinforces the focus on language, character, and thought. The scenery, which consists of a leveled stage, a few stairs, and a jutting wall, is painted a uniform deep black. At the back of the stage, three glass panes double as windows, granting glimpses of the topsy-turvy interior of a nearby madhouse, and as mirrors within the castle of Joanna’s father, Vermandero (Sam Tsoutsouvas). Most of the play’s action takes place within this castle, which Vermandero guards closely, as a matter of defense: “Our citadels/ Are placed conspicuous to outward view,/ On promonts’ tops, but within are secrets.” The simplicity of the mise-en-scène contributes to a general atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread. The murder itself takes place deep within the castle—Piracquo innocently begs De Flores for an insider’s tour—and, as the same space doubles as various rooms and passages within the fortress, the nearly bare stage comes to feel like a mazy, unmappable haunted house. This murky, convoluted space offers an external emblem for the secret spaces of the characters’ inner lives.
In the play’s subplot, the stage doubles as a mad-house, run by the foolish doctor Alibius (Christopher McCann) and his brutish, whip-cracking assistant Lollio (Andrew Weems). Having charged Lollio with watching over his wife, Isabella (Michelle Beck), Alibius disappears for long stretches, leaving the long-suffering Isabella to endure the advances of a pair of pretend-madmen (Bill Army and Philippe Bowgen) and of Lollio, who repeatedly reminds her that if she chooses to be unfaithful to her husband, he will claim “my share.” Once again, we see a woman caught in grim negotiations over the use of her body. Beck’s Isabella longs for love, and very nearly gives in to Army’s delightful Antonio, whose feigned madness is almost as charming as his earnest amorousness. Yet she remains faithful to her husband—providing a contrast to Beatrice-Joanna and, at the same time, a suggestion that neither “virtue” nor “vice” is a particularly satisfactory choice for either woman.
The tragedy arises, this production seems to suggest, less from fair Beatrice-Joanna’s secret foulness or from hideous De Flores’ correspondingly ugly soul. Rather, it emerges from the crisis of minds and hearts in conflict with the systems—of class, birth, gender, marriage—that enclose them. Red Bull’s Changeling lays bare not only the inner workings of the minds of Beatrice-Joanna, De Flores, Isabella, and the rest, but also the social structures in which they are caught. For De Flores, social disenfranchisement produces discontent, which in turn produces violence. For Beatrice-Joanna and Isabella, sexual desire for “wrong” objects puts them at odds with an entire patriarchal system within which their places as daughters and wives, maids and matrons, grant them social value. The crimes these characters commit, or nearly commit, are bad options in a field of terrible choices. To be virtuous is to deny one’s own selfhood and desires; to pursue desire is, more often than not, to end up “dipp’d in blood.”
Near the end of the play, Beatrice-Joanna tells Alsemero, “Your love has made me/ A cruel murd’ress.” Half-confession and half-accusation—“it was for your sake done,” she insists—her frantic outpouring retells the play’s action in miniature, from Piracquo’s death to her strange intimacy with De Flores, simultaneously born of and poisoned by mutual crime. The staging echoes their earlier scene of negotiation, but in reverse. Then, Beatrice-Joanna cowered under her co-conspirator. Here, Aselmero falls backward, horrified, while Beatrice-Joanna crouches over him, holding him in place, her white nightgown trailing, her hair spilling over them both. The scene is part gothic horror, part gruesome comedy—the way she pins her husband down is ugly and uncomfortable. And that’s the point. Like her physical stance, her confession comes across almost as aggression. It is a speech of passionate self-assertion, a plea to be recognized as something other than—something more complex and human than—either virginal bride or villainous whore.
Categories: Theater Reviews