Forget VR—Red Bull’s production of The Changeling will take you places

B-J & Alsemero in Red Bull's Changeling (by Carol Rosegg)(w)

Sara Topham as Beatrice-Joanna and Christian Coulson as her paramour of the moment in The Changeling (photo by Carol Rosegg)

If ordinary superhero fantasies get you down, you may be tempted to turn to Quentin Tarantino, whose recent films have dramatized attempts to compensate for history and thus indirectly remind us how badly things have gone for entire classes of humanity. Unfortunately, Tarantino’s most recent movie, The Hateful Eight, is a lunatic spectacle, dispiriting in the extreme. If you want a more coherent glimpse of the twisted ways of the human heart, take a look at The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, now being performed by Red Bull at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City. At the center of the play are two fabulous characters: Beatrice-Joanna, a well-born woman whose desires change like the wind, and De Flores, a manservant so besotted with her that he’s willing to bring about whatever she wishes, though she detests the very sight of him.

The situation may call to mind that of Solness, the architect in Ibsen’s Master Builder, who speaks of “helpers and servers” that accomplished for him—at great cost to others—what he dared to dream of. But in Ibsen, all that happened offstage and in the past; Middleton and Rowley place it squarely before us. The result is a real horror show, which is (or ought to be) intensified by a bizarrely comic secondary plot involving a madhouse, but it goes beyond that. T. S. Eliot, in his 1927 essay on Middleton, said, “The tragedy of The Changeling is an eternal tragedy, as permanent as Oedipus or Antony and Cleopatra; it is the tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action.” Beatrice-Joanna demonstrates something that Oscar Wilde warned of, in all seriousness (despite the glibness with which it’s often repeated): beware of getting what you want.

The Red Bull production, directed by Jesse Berger, seemed in a preview performance to have misjudged a few things. The admittedly tricky madhouse scenes now and then verged on being silly. A gruesome bit of business enacted on the floor of the forestage was partly blocked by the heads of other spectators. And I missed the point of the dumb-show ritual enacted by all the players before the first and second acts. But the script appears to have been trimmed judiciously, the entire set (by Marion Williams) is like a black entrapping labyrinth, and there’s much else to praise, especially the darkly singing vitality of Sara Topham as Beatrice-Joanna and Manoel Felciano as De Flores.

Those who follow consumer-technology news will be aware that some so-called virtual-reality headsets will be released in full form this year. Perhaps a couple of obvious things can stand to be said. First, marketing has as usual gotten ahead of truth, and the reality offered by these products is largely visual, a far cry from the genuine immersion of sensation and action that was dramatized by Jennifer Haley in her 2013 play The Nether, not to mention what’s been described in any number of novels and films. Second, theater may be the original virtual reality, unless poetry—a word formed from a Greek root meaning “to make”—is, and you’ll find both here. Want to be transported? Hie yourself to the Lortel and see The Changeling. For details, see this Red Bull page.

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