By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Martin McDonagh, eat your heart out. The Changeling, written in 1622 by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, out-gruesomes contemporary blood-letting onstage by adding steamy sex instead of stupidity to the mix. In a terrific production by Red Bull Theater, a company specializing in Jacobean plays, this drama of love and loathing is given a fine and very enjoyable revival. Director Jesse Berger has managed the essential trick: avoid the slightest whiff of parody, and play it to the hilt.
A "changeling" is an ugly baby left by fairies in exchange for the beautiful child they steal, and that meaning of the word refers to the splendid, disfigured villain of this play, De Flores; Manoel Felciano is riveting in this role as he gives his character's obsessive desire and torment full-throated voice.
But this is play full of all kinds of changelings: the object of De Flores' love/lust is Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham), who, having already lost her virginity to DeFlores in exchange for his murder of her fiancé so she could marry another man, then sends her virginal maid (Kimiye Corwin) to the bridal bed in her place. Another changeling is Antonio (the hilarious Bill Army, master of schtick) who pretends to be insane so he can be committed to the madhouse in order to woo the object of his desire, Isabella (Michelle Beck), wife of the keeper of Bedlam.
The plot and sub-plots are wildly complicated, but the theme is obvious: erotic love can drive you crazy: "You are the deed's creature" DeFlores tells Beatrice-Joanna, the deed being the murder she has commissioned. Our purported heroine, the pious young beauty, changes into a manipulative bitch and finds her soul-and-body mate in a psychopath.
The costumes are changelings, too. As designed by Beth Goldenberg, the women—especially the supposedly demure Beatrice-Joanna—wear dresses that are breast showcases, while her suitors wear clothes any cool guy on the West Village street outside the theater might be wearing: black pants, leather jacket, great boots. Except they're also wearing swords. The old fools who carry whips or military medals are in period costumes, while the lunatics are in their underwear. Clothes are an obvious but clever addition to the notion of changing.
The show is on only until January 24, so if you're interested in Jacobean drama, this is one of those rare chances, one for the life list.