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Although created in 1622, the Jackie Maxwell-directed version of The Changeling is set in 1930s Spain. However, this writer found the play to be quite aloof from historical context.

Cylla von Tiedemann

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Thomas Middleton, William Rowley
Directed by
Jackie Maxwell
Mikaela Davies, Ben Carlson
Tom Patterson Theatre
Stratford, ON
Runs Until
Saturday, September 23, 2017

Beatrice-Joanna's plight at the start of The Changeling is one similar to many a Shakespearean heroine. Her father has promised her to one man, but she's fallen in love with another.

Instead of running off into the forest with her lover like Hermia or faking her own death to be with him like Juliet, however, Beatrice-Joanna – played by Mikaela Davies in the production currently on at the Stratford Festival – has another bright idea: Hire a hitman named De Flores to kill her fiancé.

Welcome (or welcome back) to the world of Thomas Middleton – the dark Renaissance dramatist rediscovered in the middle of the previous century whom some academics have been pushing as our "other Shakespeare" in this one.

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Middleton created The Changeling with William Rowley in 1622, is often credited with part of Timon of Athens (also on at Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre this season) and wrote or co-wrote a slew of other plays about sex and murder featuring less-than-virtuous female characters that forced him out of favour until the end of official stage censorship in England.

At the perverse centre of The Changeling is the relationship between Beatrice-Joanna (Davies, in a performance as double-dealing as her character's double-barrelled name) and the gentleman De Flores (played with creepy charisma by Ben Carlson) – a gentleman obsessed with her and by whom she begins the play professing to be disgusted.

She ostensibly wants to rid herself of Alonzo (Qasim Khan) to be with Alsemero (Cyrus Lane) – but by making her dark pact with De Flores, she actually forms the most intimate physical and psychological bond with him.

In director Jackie Maxwell's in-the-round production, De Flores's ugliness is represented by what looks like a dark rash on his left cheek that makes him appear handsome or ugly depending on what angle you are viewing any given scene. He's as literally two-faced as Beatrice-Joanna is metaphorically.

In Davies's and Carlson's performances, they seem like the only psychologically complex pair in a society that otherwise is unilaterally obsessed with "honour" – Maxwell allowing them to have enough genuine sexual chemistry to make the coerced sex at the centre of the story to play out as, at the very least, semi-consensual.

There are a number of challenges to staging The Changeling in our day and age – one being that the characters are actually far more concerned with maidenhood than murder. It's the taking of virginity rather than the taking of a life that everyone gets truly bothered about; a bed trick and an absurd test for a woman's "honesty" in the second half of the "tragedy" can only seem satirical today.

Fear of women's sexuality is also the motivator of an overtly comic subplot set in a private asylum full of "madmen" and "fools." Its owner-operator, Albius (Michael Spencer-Davis), has decided to have the guard Lollio (Tim Campbell) lock up his young wife, Isabella (Jessica B. Hill), with the inmates because he is worried that she will be unfaithful to him.

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The strategy fails as young gentlemen sneak into the asylum pretending to be crazy. This is all well acted, with Hill and Campbell giving particularly strong performances, but it's hard to find more than mild amusement in the scenario of a for-profit institution where mental patients are mistreated. Maxwell leaves the distance between these scenes and the main plot for audiences to bridge on their own.

The director and her designer, Camellia Koo, haven't treated the play as metaphorically timeless – but moved it to a very specific time and place, the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, at one point even parading a giant puppet of Generalissimo Franco across the stage.

Koo's set is comprised of four large stone arches, the legs of which are see-through – but still make it so that you are often watching characters through slender bars. Early in the play, Maxwell also frequently freezes time for asides – having all actors except the one speaking stand in place. I found the imposing arches and these human-statue gardens cluttered the stage – and was relieved the latter convention was dropped later on.

In her director's note, Maxwell writes of The Changeling that it is "not a drama from the past that we can distance ourselves from." I was surprised to read this after watching her production, because I actually found it quite aloof.

The fascistic patriarchy of this Spain is not set up enough at the start to explain Beatrice-Joanna's drastic decision as anything other than cold and capricious. As played by David Collins, her father, Vermandero, seems like a kindly pushover who might very well accede to her request for a new fiancé.

The violence plays out like dark comedy, and guilt or anxiety are not really deeply explored in the performances. The conclusion, where all the characters stand around dead bodies talking about what they've learned from everything, is like a parody of a 1980s family sitcom.

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That Maxwell describes it as a "devastating conclusion" in her note leads me to believe that there's a gap between how she views her production and how it is being viewed. It's nevertheless a clear production of a play many will be happy to simply see on stage.

The Changeling continues to Sept. 23 (

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