It started with a dance. A banging whip jolted me in my seat. The sound of a woman breathing starts to echo all around. Blood spurts forth from a dismembered finger. Everyone was drenched in red and brown. Whore! She was killed, the heavens descend and a choir surrounds a ruined woman.
The Changeling felt like a 360 degree, full-bodied experience. The acting and design support the haunting nature of the play, but the comic plot line distracted from the overall show.
The show took place at the Chan Centre's Telus Studio Theatre, a very intimate theatre space with the audience surrounding the performance. The production made full use of the space, with actors shouting from the balconies, lights revealing vignettes above us, and characters entering the space from every direction. The blocking and use of space had the effect of making you frantically dart your head around taking in the sounds and movement. The set design by Luis Bellassai was occult-like and evocative. Ropes were strung up from the floor to the rafters, resembling a cage suggestive of bondage.
The costumes designed by Charlotte Di Chang were richly textured giving an air of decadence and sensuality. The costumes were vividly red against the set, suggesting blood and accentuating the violence of the play’s subject matter.
The Changeling centres around Beatrice. Her father has arranged for her to be wed to Alonzo, but she doesn't love him. Alsemero is the actual love of her life. Beatrice seeks out the help of her father’s servant, De Flores, to help her murder Alonzo. But De Flores secretly lusts after her. Once the deed is done, he refuses the money and would much rather receive payment of another kind.
Bonnie Duff’s performance as Beatrice in the first half of the play was exuberant, youthful and bright. She later brought forth an emotionally vulnerable performance in the sexual assault scene. Her performance post-assault was haunted, sombre and desperate. She’s the central performancer we follow through the play and her transformation was the driving heart.
Kyle Preston Oliver’s performance as De Flores was slimy and smug. His physical looks did not quite match the ugliness of the character as originally described in the text, but having the character be attractive adds to the sinister nature of the character, as creeps aren’t always repulsive and often are attractive smug men.
Running parallel to the main storyline is a comic plotline that centres around a madhouse. But as I was questioning the play’s relevance to today’s world, I start to feel that the comic storyline softens the intensity of the play; breaking up the tension. Since the play was first written, there has been more art that delves further into the institutions that encourage sexual assault.
In the current cultural landscape we have things like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which was more effective in speaking to power and forcing the audience to sit with the tension that most marginalized people have to face every single day. And with the current art that is out there, I don’t see how The Changeling could stay relevant if it continues to coddle the audience by preserving the comic storyline.
The Changeling was a visceral disorienting experience, but the continued preservation of the original text in its entirety struggles in letting the audience feel the full tension of such a traumatic experience.