Lust, betrayal, revenge, madness, murder, a bloody severed finger. These are but a few of the elements that have fueled the appeal of the Jacobean tragedy “The Changeling” for centuries. Written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley circa 1622, the grisly, intricate work, portraying blind ambition and the consequences of sin, has been subjected to countless interpretations.
The latest version, by the gutsy Red Bull Theater troupe, offers up a crisp, modern spin that locates caustic humor within the pathos. Under the inventive direction of Jesse Berger, the work has been stripped down to its essence (not unlike other highly praised dramas of this season, such as “The Color Purple” and “A View from the Bridge”).
Eschewing an elaborate period set, Marion Williams has constructed a kind of midcentury modernist structure to represent both the castle chambers and the madhouse (which, it could be argued, are one and the same). Imagine a stone and tile carport designed by Mies van der Rohe painted glossy black. Although the action takes place in the Spanish port city of Alicante, the set is nonspecific, evoking the universality of the play’s themes.
Red Bull Theater breathes new life into Jacobean tragedy of passion and madness
The juicy, dizzying plot, a warped riff on the “Beauty and the Beast” fable, can be tough to follow. One day at church services, the ravishing Beatrice-Joanna falls for Alsemero (Christian Coulson), a debonair nobleman from Valencia. Problem is, she is betrothed to Alonzo (John Skelley). When Alsemero’s pal Jasperino (Justin Blanchard) observes the couple in a hot embrace, he says, “This smoke will bring forth fire.” This prediction proves all too true.
Enter the beastly De Flores, a servant whose disfigured face repulses Beatrice. Together they hatch a plan to murder her fiancé. Once the deed is done, she is free to marry Alsemero, but now she is bound to De Flores in complicity. Against all odds, she gives in to his crude charms.
An awkward secondary plot involving insane inmates in a madhouse reflects Beatrice’s and De Flores’ guilt and turmoil.
This is no timid production. This highly theatrical “Changeling” takes full advantage of ghastly dramatic moments, amping up the sex and gore. You can practically smell the blood dripping from the ringed finger that De Flores hacks off to prove the murder. Erotic scenes generate real heat. And when the supremely creepy madmen and fools are let out of their cell to cavort across the stage, I chuckled, but also made a mental note of the nearest exit.
The edge-of-your seat drama is heightened further by Peter West’s lighting and Ryan Rumery’s gloomy music.
The dynamic, 14-person cast is, for the most part, impressive. Sara Topham embodies the conniving Beatrice with piercing, complex layers of anguished wickedness. Yet she shifts easily into comedy in the scene where Alsemero makes Beatrice chug a magic potion that detects if she is a virgin (she is not, but she fakes the requisite symptoms of yawning, sneezing, and cackling most convincingly).
Bill Army offers further comic relief as the prancing, underwear-clad Antonio, a dithering fool who is actually a gentleman in disguise. He’s one of the many changelings in this captivating, albeit uneven tale of astonishing transformations.
Even more affecting is Manoel Feliciano as De Flores, who possesses a brutish, tormented quality that both repulses and attracts. As the play progresses, his grotesqueness melts away not only in Beatrice’s eyes, but in ours as well.
THE CHANGELING | Red Bull Theater | Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Bedford Sts.| Through Jan. 24: Tue.-Wed. at 7:30 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $60-$80; redbulltheater.com | Two hrs., 10 mins., with intermission