In 1621, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley rewrote the story of the fall of man with their Jacobean tragedy The Changeling: Beatrice (Sara Topham) is engaged to marry Alonzo de Piracquo (John Skelley), but she is in love with Alsemero (Christian Coulson), who is equally smitten. He tells his friend, Jasperino (Justin Blanchard), “I love her beauties to the holy purpose, / And that methinks admits comparison / With man’s first creation, the place blest.” Enter the snake, De Flores (Manoel Felciano), who repulses Beatrice but finds himself necessary to her when she realizes that Piracquo must be killed before she can marry Alsemero. In return for his “service dangerous,” she begins a sexual relationship with him, which complicates her wedding night and leads to a rather grisly bed trick. When all is done, Beatrice must admit that love has made her a “cruel murderess”: “I have kiss’d poison for’t, strok’d a serpent, / That thing of hate.”
The Jacobeans, of course, were not stingy with violence, and this is where the Red Bull Theatre’s current revival most succeeds. For example, there is the scene in which De Flores attempts to remove a ring from Piracquo’s corpse but finds it stuck. Naturally, “finger and all shall off,” and he later gifts it to Beatrice: “I’ve a token for you.” Mr. Felciano, adding some bounce to the exchange, has the demeanor of a dog dropping a bird’s carcass at its owner’s feet, proud and ready for praise. Thus, director Jesse Berger nails the comedy, a bilious comedy that has proved durable, to which anyone who has seen Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight can attest. And in the play’s eponymous side plot, Billy Army provides more traditional relief as Antonio, the nobleman who is posing as mad to woo the asylum doctor’s wife (Michelle Beck). His horse-toothed charm has a nice, vaudevillian swagger. However, his scenes would be more effective were they juxtaposed with Middleton and Rowley’s serious concerns.
Which is why, ultimately, Mr. Berger fails to mount a fully-realized Changeling. The play is not strictly a blood-soaked comedy; the very fate of man is at stake here. Just as her crimes are beginning to snowball, Beatrice asks, “Was my creation in the womb so curs’d / It must engender with a viper first?” Middleton and Rowley leave the question open, offering no peek at paradise regained. But by the end of this revival, we are only vaguely aware of our involvement in the matter. This not only dulls the effect of the drama, but of the comedy, too, as it can only sharpen in contrast to tragedy. “All we can do to comfort one another … Is to no purpose,” Alsemero says in the play’s dour epilogue. Mr. Berger has cut these lines from his production, and perhaps rightly so: leaving the Lucille Lortel Theater, I had so sense that I had witnessed anything so devastating as to require comfort.