JANUARY 2020 | Volume 187
The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Jacobean revenge tragedy is always bloody great fun. Bloody, and great fun. Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling dates from 1622. Shakespeare has been dead for a few years and the kind of tragedy he wrote is in its decadence. The corpses still pile up, like in Hamlet. Characters offer up philosophical soliloquies, like in Hamlet. But this ain’tHamlet.
Like in many of Shakespeare’s plays there’s a fool, a ghost, madmen, a wedding night bed trick, a father wanting his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love, and a jealous old husband with a young wife. But Thomas Middleton—one of the best of the Jacobeans—was no Shakespeare, and William Rowley was a hack. Middleton supposedly wrote the tragic main plot and Rowley the parallel comic subplot.
For an audience grown used to metaphysical blood and guts, each successive play had to raise the stakes. So the murderer doesn’t just take the ring off the corpse, he cuts the whole finger off. The “dishonoured” woman doesn’t just protest that she’s still a virgin; she takes a virginity test and fakes the result. If this were Hollywood, these guys would be making zombie flicks.
MFA director Luciana Silvestre Fernandes has mounted a smart and stylish production of The Changeling staged in the round. Luis Bellassai’s terrific set features floor-to-flies crisscrossed ropes that make the space feel like a circus tent. When Zach Levis’ lights go down, the ropes eerily retain some illumination. No longer set in 17th century Spain, Fernandes’ Changeling has the futuristic/nostalgic feel of a punk ‘50s sci-fi B-movie, largely as a result of Charlotte Di Chang’s emphatic costumes with their pointy shoulders, bright plastic pants and random furs.
To deal with the play’s misogyny—the changeling of the title is a woman who changes from being a paragon of virtue to being an accomplice to two murders, plus having sex with the murderer just before her wedding to another man—Fernandes introduces an expressionistic device. Four other actors, dressed identically to our tragic heroine, enact agonized gestures in chorus to underline and externalize her agonies, fears and regrets. These elements don’t really solve the problem but do add another vivid visual dimension.
Beatrice-Joanna (Bonnie Duff) is in love with Alsemero (Hayden Davies) but her father (Liam McCulley) wants her to marry Alonzo (Connor Riopel). Meanwhile, the classic conscienceless Jacobean villain De Flores (Kyle Preston Oliver) plots to get Beatrice-Joanna for himself, though she scorns him.
When De Flores offers to kill Alonzo for her, Beatrice accepts. When he comes for his reward, she tries to buy him off but he blackmails her into having sex with him.
To keep Alsemero from finding out she’s not a virgin, Beatrice gets her maid Diaphanta (Chantal Gering) to slip into their wedding bed in her place. Naturally, Diaphanta will then have to be killed to keep her quiet. The murderers are eventually found out and get what’s coming.
The subplot takes place in a madhouse where Lollio (Abbey Laine Schwartz) tames the madmen with her whip, though two of them (Ishan Sandhu, David Lundmark) turn out to be faking it so they can try to seduce Isabella (Monica Bowman), young wife of the old doctor (Lorenzo Tesler-Mabe). Unlike Beatrice, Isabella doesn’t fall for the seducers’ tricks.
Arrogant, abject, unadulterated villain De Flores is the real star of the play, and Oliver does a terrific job being crisply creepy. Duff holds her own nicely as Beatrice, though her shift from good girl (okay, not that good—she would defy her father) to crazy murderess is tough to make credible. She even comes to love De Flores because of his service to her. Davies has some very good moments, too, though his Alsemero has to scream things like “whore!” at Beatrice.With all its talk of fools and its masque, or dance, of madmen, the subplot provides a perfect metaphor of the Jacobean worldview. Humans are foolish, the world is irrational, society is merely a pretenders’ ball. The apparent triumph of good over evil at the end is kind of a joke.
get in touch with vancouverplays:
Vancouver's arts and culture website providing theatre news, previews and reviews