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More of The Same Thing With ART's 'Changeling'

The Changeling Written by Thomas Middleton DDirected by Robert Brustei At the American Repertory Theatre Until February 19

THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE'S (ART) season premiere, The Changeling, provides an object lesson in dramatic history.

Director Robert Brustein--who is the ART's Artistic Director, Professor of English at Harvard, and theatre critic for The New Republic--has performed major surgery on Thomas Middleton's seventeenth century tragedy to resurrect it for the Loeb stage. Brustein's version of the neglected Jacobean play is a kind of amalgam with the elegance of neo-classical tragedy, the gritty flow of nineteenth century Naturalism and the thematic revelance of Modernism, yet it still manages to cohere.

Kicking off the ART's seventh year in Cambridge, Brustein's Changeling demonstrates a not too didactic lesson: that we can breathe fresh life into old lines, and in so doing throw new light on theatrical traditions. Although this concept sounds obvious, putting on a play that was first produced in 1622 (and rarely thereafter) can be tricky business, especially when you've got to uphold a reputation for avant-garde wizardry.

Certainly, Brustein and Co, are not renowned for fuddy-duddy programming: the director's last effort was a very hip version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the upcoming calendar of his ART theatre includes a new opera by Philip Glass and Robert Moran, a Robert Wilson interpretation of Euripides's Alcestis scored by Laurie Anderson, and a tentative project by Polish movie director Andrzej Wajda.

ACCORDINGLY, The Changeling doesn't look or sound like a Jacobean tragedy about love, murder and intrigue. The metallic scaffolding and leather jumpsuits that comprise Michael H. Yeargan's sets and costumes could have been borrowed from an episode of "Battlestar Galactica." Brustein's characters speak their lines at breakneck speed and with near-feverish emotion to give Middleton's rhyming text the language and feel of everyday speech. No stuffy parlor play this.

Even the text itself has undergone significant alteration at Brustein's hands. To highlight Middleton's thoroughly contemporary theme of oppressed womanhood, one third of the original text has been excised--including the entire subplot written by Middleton's collaborator William Rowley, dealing with feigned madness and giving the play its title character.

Brustein's Changeling is thus about passion and virginity--though not of the Hail Mary, controversially-Catholic variety that recently has been thrust into the headlines. Here the reputation of virginity--protagonist Beatrice-Joanna Vermandero's (Diane D'Aquila) obsession to keep her honor intact--leads to doom and destruction. Female chastity is the ideal that justifies the most heinous atrocities.

THE STORY TURNS on Beatrice-Joanna's revolt against her father's attempt to marry her to a man she detests, by arranging for his murder. As Brustein painstakingly pointed out in his program notes, contemporary (ie. post-Woman's Lib) theatregoers should be deeply moved to witness a woman destroyed at the hands of her domineering father. True enough: Beatrice-Joanna's undoing ought to give this play its resonance; we should sympathize with her dilemma while simultaneously celebrating the fact that it could not happen in the 1980s.

BUT SAD TO SAY, this strategy backfires. Brustein's carefully planned theoretical blueprint of the play is sabotaged by shoddy acting in several key roles. The chief blame rests with D'Aquila, whose mannish, histrionic performance never musters an ounce of sympathy. Her love affair with Alsemero (Harry S. Murphy) is discarded too early; and she changes into an evil murderess with only the slightest provocation, gushing at one point, "I am forced to love thee now for thou provides so well for mine honor."

Although the inevitability of Beatrice-Joanna's psychological paralysis is meant to move us, it doesn't because the gruff and ready D'Aquila hasn't accumulated any sweet-maidenhood points. We don't care that she makes love to a man she hates in order to obviate marrying another man she scorns (and all for the sake of a third man whom she loves but deceives). We like her so little we find it hard to view her tragic demise as anything but deserving comeuppance.

This goes double for the overheated, young-buck-turned-shmuck performance that mars virtually every scene in which Jack Stehlin appears (in the role of the murdered Alonzo's brother). The show's only virtuoso acting comes from John Bottoms as the tragic villain De Flores. As an impoverished nobleman in the Vermandero household, De Flores is the instrument of Beatrice-Joanna's downfall, and he oozes evil. Fine-tuned to gruesome perfection by Bottoms (here of the shiny bald pate and knock-kneed posture), De Flores is a cross between Igor and Iago, first fawning on Beatrice-Joanna, then exacting fealty--and a whole lot more--for being her hit-man.

Nay-saying aside, however, The Changeling is credible dramatic fare. Brustein's masterful revision of the musty script warrants praise. Too bad he wasn't confident enough of his audience to let his rewrite run without all the oblations to trendiness. There should be a place at the ART for mainstream theatre that doesn't seek to break the sound barrier for its utter chic-ness. That is, if the professor doesn't mind putting aside his textbook on cornering the Latest Thing market.