STRATFORD, Ont. — The Stratford Festival’s new production of The Changeling starts revealing its fault lines almost immediately.
On the one hand, we have the always dependable Mike Nadajewski, revelling in the small but important role of that sardonic whistle-blower, Jasperino, and delivering the play’s 17th Century dialogue with naturalistic ease.
In unfortunate contrast, we also have Mikaela Davies, in the crucial role of Beatrice-Joanna, the indulged young lady who gets more than she bargains for when she hires a hit man to eliminate the fiance she doesn’t want to marry. Davies is not so much acting a part as delivering a dutiful recitation — which doesn’t really convey much of her turbulent inner being or serve the hothouse sensibility of the steamy saga of lust and murder served up for our delectation by playwrights Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. As for Cyrus Lane, in a damp squib of a performance as Alsemero, the guy she really wants to marry, he seems to be struggling with the language as well, falling back on an awkward formality that deprives it of life.
Jackie Maxwell’s production does have some fine set-piece moments. There’s a brilliantly executed murder scene — its grand-guignol horrors accentuated by the moment when the victim’s finger is chopped off in order to provide easier access to a coveted ring. Later, Maxwell displays her resourcefulness with large crowd scenes when the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre erupts into an explosion of colourful wedding revelry through which the giant surrealistic presence of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco floats like some malevolent bird of prey.
But what’s Franco doing here? Well, Maxwell has chosen to set this play during the latter days of the Spanish Civil War, when a new era of conservative repression is dawning — a repression reflected in the inability of a young woman like Beatrice-Joanna to make her own choice of husband. Maxwell makes clear in her program notes that that Beatrice-Joanna fascinates her as a compelling young woman who acts as she does because she’s been denied her basic freedoms — and indeed, under different circumstances, The Changeling might well prove to be a vehicle for a strong feminist statement. But not here, unfortunately.
Designer Camellia Koo has supplied the Patterson stage with four ravaged Moorish arches that evoke the shattered ruins that can be still found in parts of Spain eight decades after the war ended. (Indeed, Koo’s atmospheric arches could have been inspired by Belize, the destroyed Spanish town where former Stratford artistic director John Neville spent several weeks filming The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen back in the 1980s). This design was risky for the Patterson’s in-the-round setting because of the danger of setting up visual barriers for the audience. Instead, thanks to Bonnie Beecher’s lighting and Jackie Maxwell’s fluid staging, we are transported to all manner of locales from a church to a lunatic asylum.
Nevertheless, the 20th Century setting doesn’t really work. There’s a problem with exposition early in the first act. The dramatic issues are not adequately laid out: furthermore, Judith Bowden’s costume contribution, which offers a smudge of interchangeable males in interchangeable business suits, isn’t much help in defining character. For people unfamiliar with this play, it will be confusing at the beginning. And it may continue to be confusing — which can explain why there were walk-outs at intermission the other afternoon.
There is also the failure to establish a consistent acting style — largely due to the struggles some cast members are having with the dialogue. This places an able actor like Ben Carlson at a disadvantage. He plays De Flores, the facially disfigured servant hired by Beatrice-Joanna to bump off the wealthy Alonzo de Piracquo, the guy she doesn’t want to marry. This De Flores can be the iciest of executioners — and there’s something indeed chilling about the matter-of-fact pragmatism which which he stabs his victim in the neck. But there’s also hot blood coursing through his veins, because he lusts after Beatrice-Joanna and is determined to exact a sexual price for what he has done on her behalf — thereby plunging both of them into a further cauldron of horror. Trouble is — the Joanna-Beatrice given us by Mikaela Davies remains too much of a blank slate to connect plausibly with Carlson’s creepily persuasive De Flores. The play, among other things, deals with repressed sexuality in a straitjacketed culture. That sexuality is unleashed, or should be, in Joanna-Beatrice’s encounters with De Flores, encounters that might be expected to communicate the unsettling mixture of erotic surrender and physical revulsion that she experiences.
To be sure, we are treated to the spectacle of a graphic sexual coupling, complete with orchestrated groans and moans, which comes across as somewhat improbable given that the participants are fully clothed. Moments like this may qualify it for an R rating, but this remains a production surprisingly lacking in psychological tension. And its search for a viable style is hampered by some performances so stilted and bloodless that they border on the animatronic.
Ironically, the most rewarding scenes involve a sub-plot set in an asylum where a character named Antonio feigns madness in order to become a patient and gain greater access to Isabella, the wife of a resident doctor. The situation is dramatically absurd but it’s salvaged here by acting that is more in tune with the play’s perverse sensibility. Gareth Potter’s Antonio deftly engages our attention with its portrait of an “understanding madman.” Jessica B. Hill, at ease with the language of the play, gives us an Isabella with a feisty sense of self-worth. Michael Spencer-Davis, as her meek husband, is a credible cuckold in fear of any male within her orbit, and an excellent Tim Campbell has a field day as Jessica’s cheerfully menacing keeper.
It’s a frustrating production — like the curate’s egg, good in parts. But for Stratford publicists to liken it to “a film noir thriller” — well that’s more than a bit of a stretch. This Changeling needs more sizzle and less fizzle.
(The Changeling continues to Sept. 23. Ticket information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)