Nobody seems to love lurid, gory, sex-filled Jacobean thrillers as much as Jesse Berger, artistic director of the alternative classical theater company Red Bull Theater, which has made a niche out of producing 17th-century dramas by contemporaries and immediate successors of Shakespeare such as John Ford, John Webster and Ben Jonson.
These plays are rarely performed — even by the companies that specialize in Shakespeare and classic drama. Most of them have not stood the test of time, but they can still make for fun and intense theatergoing.
Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s “The Changeling,” the latest work to receive the Red Bull treatment, is an overstuffed, over-the-top tragicomedy where a feisty young woman, attracted to a handsome bachelor who happens to show up to her father’s castle one day, makes a deal with a disfigured servant to dispose of her fiance, leading to lots of murder and clandestine sex.
In the play’s most infamous moment, when a diamond ring won’t come off the finger of the girl’s dead fiance, the servant cuts off the entire finger, thus solving the problem.
An independent subplot involves a madhouse where two sane men feign insanity in order to woo the resident doctor’s wife.
“The Changeling” is not as strong as other recent Red Bull productions (including a fantastic staging of “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” last year). The cast, though capable and hardworking, isn’t quite able to bring credibility to the play.
Even so, Berger’s production has a rough vitality, not to mention plenty of heightened language, blood and cleavage.
Manoel Felciano, best known for his memorably creepy Tobias in the 2005 Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” stands out as the spurned and scarred servant De Flores, managing to be sympathetic despite his character’s scheming.
In the spring, Red Bull will return with Sheridan’s 18th-century comedy of manners “The School for Scandal.” Count me in.