The Changeling is NOT by William Shakespeare, it’s by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley and I had no idea what to expect. I saw Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy at the Blackfriars Playhouse last month, but it was the first Middleton I’d seen, so I didn’t know how typical it was. (The ASC production is great, but the play itself didn’t wow me, possibly because of the sheer number of bodies that litter the stage at the end.) But now my view of Middleton is colored by The Changeling, which, it seems to me, is a great play. ASC’s production of the play is perfection, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Although the play is great because of its stirring plot and bold themes, it’s gripping in part because of the parallel stories being told. The main story takes place in the castle where Alsemero is in love with Beatrice, who is betrothed to another man. Desperate Beatrice employs the hated DeFlores to kill her fiancé so that she can be with Alsemero, but things don’t work out as she planned, quite. At the same time, there is a comic subplot in the madhouse (home to fools and madmen). The subplot intersects the main story at the end, but there is also an interesting reflection going on here, one story on the other, and only the comedy in the insane ward—the characters are dressed like clowns, their behavior is exaggerated and silly, etc.—suggests which is real and which is the image.
So, there’s a lot to think about in the play itself, but let’s not forget the fantastic performances of the entire American Shakespeare Center resident company. They’re always very good, often outstanding, and in this show they are superb. Alsemero and Beatrice are played by René Thornton Jr. and Sarah Fallon, and both are wonderful. Fallon, especially, shines as Beatrice swings wildly between her love for Alsemero and her hatred for DeFlores, and then spirals downward as the horror of what she’s done takes hold. Benjamin Curns is wicked as DeFlores, the servant to the governor who lets his passion for Beatrice guide him, unleashing what appears to be natural bent toward evil. The role is a subtle one, and Curns is terrific. The scene in which DeFlores makes it clear to Beatrice that it isn’t her money he wants is incredibly chilling. Miriam Donald is Diaphanta, the saucy servant to Beatrice. Donald has an energy on stage that is always fun to watch, and this is a fine part for her. John Harrell is Vermandero, the governor. It’s not a part that showcases Harrell’s great comedic talents, but there are some very funny moments, such as near the end when Vermandero is passing judgment on the accused murderers of Alonzo while Alsemero, who has discovered the truth, can’t get his attention. Gregory Jon Phelps and Christopher Seiler play Alonzo, Beatrice’s fiancé, and his brother, and both are quite good, but they both really shine in the parallel madhouse plot where they are Antonio, the false fool, and Lollio, the doctor’s assistant. Alibius, the doctor, is Aaron Hochhalter, who makes an excellent mad scientist. In this part of the play, Antonio is pretending to be a fool to get to Isabella, the doctor’s wife, who is played by Alyssa Wilmoth as a pouty schoolgirl who is, naturally, charmed by the attention she receives from Antonio and also from Franciscus, played by Thomas Keegan, who is pretending to be mad. Both Phelps and Keegan are very funny in these roles, as is Seiler, who seems a genuine mad fool to these two counterfeits.
It is, as I said, a superb show. But wait, there’s more.
I always make sure to get to the theater at least fifteen minutes before the show starts so that I can catch the pre-show. The pre-show is different for each of the plays and is usually a mix of music and clever ways to deliver the basic information: the company uses Shakespeare’s original staging practices, no photography allowed, etc. The pre-show for The Changeling is one of the funniest I’ve seen. It began with some fine musical performances by the cast and then Phelps, Curns, and Keegan came on stage. They wore ballcaps and bling and, sure enough, they launched into a hip-hop version of the pre-show speech. Very funny stuff. And then it got even funnier when John Harrell brought the rap to a stop.
This is a show to remember. And there is still time to see it and its companions before the Actors Renaissance Season ends on March 29: Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Henry VI Part I, and the show that will open next week, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria. And you should.