By Thomas Middleton & William Rowley
Directed by J. Barrett Cooper
Reviewed by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The Jacobeans mean business. They don’t fool around for a minute. Maybe they felt they had something to prove following Shakespeare and the marvelous period of Elizabethan theatre; but for whatever the reason, there are few half measures in Jacobean plays. If you are looking for an evening at the theatre occupied with violence and tragedy resulting from profound shifts in morality, then The Changeling is just the ticket.
The first scenes establish what looks to be a romantic triangle, with Beatrice-Joanna in love with Alsemero but promised in marriage by her father to Alonzo. Yet we learn that there is yet another, unrequited suitor for the fair noblewoman in the character of Deflores, one of her father’s servants. This plotline alternates with overtly comic scenes set in an asylum run by Alibius, a doctor jealous of the attentions directed towards his younger, attractive wife, Isabella. At first the apparent contrast in tone is jarring, but the “serious” side of the story allows potent notes of dark humor to punctuate the developing threads of desire and betrayal, while the “comic” plot sneaks some thoughtful moments analogous to the tragedy into the slapstick. The resulting tonal balance is a challenge well met by this expert production.
Deflores is a dark and complex individual, drawing wry laughs from the audience as he commits a fair amount of evil. Beatrice-Joanna enlists him to simplify her love life but receives more than she bargained for as Deflores extracts his price in a stunning and horrific confrontation that closes the first act. It is beautifully staged for maximum effect by director J. Barrett Cooper; and the two players, Jeremy Sapp and Kate Bringardner, strip away the veneer of civility to expose the primal emotions at the core of the scene: selfish desire and cruelty.
It was the highlight of a performance filled with many such indelible moments. A vengeful specter, maimed in life, makes recurring appearances, strikingly accompanied by disturbing, atonal music; several madmen gambol around the stage in a chaotic but riotously funny dance that injects unsettling anarchy into the otherwise very disciplined staging. And then there is the steady and assured work from Neil Robertson as the asylum doctor’s assistant and Tom Schulz as “the changeling” in his charge. The entire show is a study in misdirection, as the title character, vividly realized by Mr. Schulz, does not become the focus as one might expect. The classic text is again revealed to be entirely modern (a common tactic for Savage Rose): one more study of the human heart of darkness that predates all the contemporary neurotic variations on the theme.
The fine ensemble delivers perhaps the most consistently fine group of performances I’ve witnessed from this company. Aside from the aforementioned few, I would mention that Joel Mingo renders a mad fool in vivid terms that stealthily avoid the all-too-easy pitfalls of such histrionics, Ryan Watson handles the tricky character of Alsemero with aplomb, while Brian Hinds clowns brilliantly as the asylum doctor. Jennifer Thompson is lovely and charismatic as his wife; Mike Slaton is as fine an earnest, stuttering yet pitiful suitor as he is a haunting ghost; and Gerry Rose is forceful and determined as his revenge-seeking brother. Tad Chitwood, Tony Pike, Katie Scott and Melinda Beck acquit themselves admirably rounding out the rest.
The spare staging relies once again on Shana Lincoln’s skilled and detailed costuming for certain and lasting impact, with a sudden burst of color and exaggerated form – interjected with some nice mask work from Kaylyn Taylor during the madmen’s dance. But acting that fills the space with enough suggestiveness to make a set almost superfluous continues to be a Savage Rose trademark, with good lighting cues that never seem arbitrary from Lily Bartenstein.
Watching this company take to the stage again, I am reminded of The New York Times article from last year that characterized self-important art and culture as “cultural vegetables” – items akin to broccoli or asparagus in our culinary diet that we embrace as a conscious declaration of healthy intentions in our cultural diet: good for us but lacking in indulgent pleasure. It would be fair to say that all of Savage Rose’s efforts might qualify as “good for you.” But at their best, they also illustrate that vitamin-enriched theatre can be highly enjoyable as well. The Changeling is Savage Rose Classical Theatre at its best.
December 8, 10, 14 & 16 @ 7:30 p.m.
December 17 @ 2 p.m.
December 17 @ 2 p.m.
In repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company
The MeX Theater, The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202