Lead character goes from virginal gentlewoman to treacherous sinner


    Admittedly not knowing much about Jacobean drama — but having seen, and enjoyed, "The Revenger's Tragedy" at the Blackfriars Playhouse — I thought I knew what to expect with "The Changeling," a 1622 play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. If it was anything like "Revenger" (also by Middleton), the Blackfriars stage would eventually groan under the weight of the corpses heaped upon it.

Not so. Instead of resorting to the wholesale slaughter of its characters, "The Changeling" shocks and awes by forcing the audience to explore an almost unrelentingly sinister world of lust and amorality, and does so with one of the most malevolent villains since Shakespeare's Iago.

There is comic relief, provided by a seemingly unrelated sub-plot, but for me the sub-plot was almost a distraction. The real meat of the play lies in the story of a woman who is engaged to be married; who lusts after another man; and who has her fiancé murdered so that she can be with the man of her dreams.

Oh, but there's a twist, a very dark twist. The payment she must give the man who murders her fiancé isn't money. It's her virginity. She makes the payment and then, while still professing love for the man of her dreams, develops a depraved adoration for her fiancé's murderer. The play is a spellbinding descent into sexual obsession that features one of the most shocking conclusions you'll ever want to see.

The complex character of Beatrice-Joanna, who changes from a virginal gentlewoman into a treacherous sinner of epic proportions, is ably tackled by one of the American Shakespeare Center's strongest performers, Sarah Fallon. Fallon is always a force to be reckoned with on stage, but when she tackles a role as meaty as that of Beatrice-Joanna, look to experience everything from heat under your collar to chills up your backside.

Hers is an intense and well executed performance — one you're not likely to forget any time soon.

If it's possible for anyone in this play to be more unforgettable than Fallon as Beatrice, it is Benjamin Curns as the deformed and sinister servant De Flores. I thought I'd seen him at his best in "The Revenger's Tragedy," but his performance in "The Changeling" left me feeling as though someone had whacked me between the eyes with a tire iron. That's how powerful it was.

His character, too, is a changeling, transforming from an apparently abused, love-besotted servant into an insidious, stone-cold killer and phallic menace in the span of a couple of scenes. Curns seamlessly transitions into this creature whose soul is as hideous as his face, and holds the audience's attention every second he is on the stage.

And when he's not on stage, you wonder what he's up to behind it. That's the kind of authority Curns, as De Flores, exerts in this role.

I suppose I shouldn't be too critical of the sub-plot, which gives the play nearly all its light moments. Rowley, I think, wrote this part of it, in which the doctor of a madhouse — insanely jealous of his wife — must deal with two men who are so smitten with her that they feign insanity to be near her (they, too, are changelings).

This section of the play also deals with sexual obsession, although in a much lighter vein, and gives another great ASC trouper — Gregory Jon Phelps — a chance to really cut loose and have some fun.

Rounding out the cast for this, the fourth play in the annual Actors' Renaissance Season, are John Harrell, Rene Thornton Jr., Chris Johnston, Miriam Donald, Christopher Seiler, Aaron Hochhalter, Alyssa Wilmoth, Thomas Keegan, Christine Schmidle and Kitty Keim.

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Sarah Fallon: Hot Like Salsa, smooth Like Chocolate.. Come Taste Me ...