Review: ‘The Changeling’ by Brave Spirits Theatre

Sex, sin, retribution, and vengeance are only starting points for the simmering cauldron that is Brave Spirit’s amped production of The Changeling, a four centuries old Jacobean drama by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. The Changeling is a passionate, dark tale that gains traction speeding into Act II when inflamed, cunning, manipulative characters take cracks at gaining control of their futures. And some have good reasons for their behavior.

Ben Peter and Danielle Scott in The Changeling. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Right off, true to the Urban Dictionary definition of scrappy, “seemingly small and unthreatening but shockingly able to kick your ass and anyone else’s,” Brave Spirits has produced another work of stimulating, not-for-the-timid theater full of verse and violence.

With robust direction and dynamic casting by Charlene Smith, The Changeling is a broadside, not a satire. It is both character and context driven. The play’s characters live in a world of male hegemony, not 400 years ago, but in a more contemporary time. It is male power that female characters work at resisting, if not toppling.

What is The Changeling about? There is a youthful, outwardly pure young woman named Beatrice (Danielle Scott). At the outset of the play, she quickly becomes infatuated with a handsome young traveler she meets in a church. He is Alsemero (Ben Peter). At neck-snapping speed, they decide to marry.

If she marries Alsemero she will be disobeying her father (Charlie Cook). He wants his daughter to marry an older, staid man (Steve Lebens). Alas, the older man does nothing to make Beatrice’s heart quicken or connect to her blossoming libido. “I should have power then to oppose my loathings,” says Scott’s Beatrice with conviction. So far, rather conventional.

Then in walks Beatrice’s servant. It is a character written by the playwrights as a male role named DeFlores. Casting Director Smith has the DeFlores character, still identified as a male, played by a female actor. Smith cast Musa Gurnis, an actress new to DC area stages. Gurnis is one not to be missed.

In character as DeFlores, Gurnis is a total magnetic danger. She has no timidness in her portrayal; she is full of swagger and Alpha confidence. As DeFlores, Gurnis is one dominant being for whom it would be easy to fall under a spell. Except when he comes to Beatrice.

DeFlores is smitten with Beatrice and sets sights on winning her heart. “Her fingers touched me! She smells all amber.” DeFlores goes on “I know she hates me, yet cannot choose but love her: No matter, if but to vex her, I’ll haunt her still; Though I get nothing else, I’ll have my will.”

Danielle Scott and Musa Gurnis in The Changeling. Photo by Claire Kimball.

As Act I proceeds, Beatrice has a boring, older male fiancée, a young man who makes her quiver who she wants to marry, and a servant in hot pursuit of her. What a conundrum. An idea pops into Beatrice’s mind. She asks DeFlores to take care of her intended bridegroom. “We shall try you – Oh, my Deflores!” Hoping to gain favor, DeFlores obliges. When Beatrice tries to pay him with money Beatrice learns that is not what DeFlores has in mind. There is a more precious repayment to be taken – what no one has ever taken from Beatrice before.

I will go no further in divulging the next happenings. Needless to say, don’t expect sunshine and rainbows.

The Changeling is far from all darkness. There is a parallel plot full of slapstick. It alternates with the main plot and takes place in an asylum. There is a world full of lunacy where males still dominate, or so they think. In this confined world, there is one special patient named Isabella (Adrianna Knapp). She is married to an older staid male (Steve Lebens again) who is the asylum’s doctor and steward. He fears his younger wife losing her virtues in the asylum.

In the asylum scenes, Director Smith adds flair and flourish to the text. The asylum characters are puppeteers who use puppets (kudos to Genna Beth Davidson) to depict characters. Knapp’s Isabella is a knock-out; full of energy as she enlivens her puppet. Knapp’s face, her often clenched fists as she defends herself, the sheer bundle of coy joy she presents is glorious. Her puppet Isabella presents in physical appearance a key line in The Changeling. The puppet has eye sockets but no apparent seeing eyes. “Our eyes are sentinels unto our judgements… but they are rash sometimes…then check the eyes, and call them blind.”

Brave Spirits The Changeling is enhanced with musical selections by Zach Roberts. Both preshow and intermission have songs that add an expressive pop dash. Titles include: “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” by Martha Wainwright with this lyric “Oh, I wish I wish I wish I was born a man.” And there is REM’s “Everybody Hurts” and The Beatles “Dear Prudence.” During asylum scenes there are renditions of “Let’s Get it On” and “I’ll Be Watching You” that are just plain fun.

Are there items that deserve a mention of a less positive nature? Well, opening night was not without bugs that likely will be fixed quickly. Some voices carried up into the wooden rafters of the theater venue leaving important dialogue garbled or with echoes. Some characters expected to be in heat seem flat-ish in their essence.

Brave Spirits pugnacious The Changeling is a rare, full production of a Jacobean tragedy shaped by Director Charlene Smith into an admirable tale worthy of today’s headlines (including one bit of violence that has taken on a new sense of realism given recent events in a certain consulate in a distant land). Take it in for its shock and awe. And come to know “In death and shame my partner she shall be.”

Note: The staging includes depictions of sexual assault, mental illness, ableism, and self-harm. Please be advised that gunfire will be used in both shows. The show is not recommended for children under the age of 16.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

The Changeling runs through November 18th, 2018, at The Lab at Convergence Theatre – 1819 North Quaker Lane, in Alexandria, VA. To purchase tickets, go online.