Review: Changeling; A Grand Guignol For Murderous Times (Desiderata Theatre Company)

World Premiere of Julian R. Munds’ dark thriller takes to the Toronto stage

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A ‘grand guignol’ was a term used for graphic horror plays that were bleak and bloody and popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. Desiderata Theatre Company’s production of Changeling; A Grand Guignol for Murderous Times, playing at the Box Theatre, was certainly a very grand guignol!

In this tragic thriller, cunning Beatrice-Joanna is set to marry Alonzo di Piracquo, but is in love with Alsemero. In order to get out of her engagement, she has Alonzo murdered by her father’s servant, DeFlores, and then must deal with the consequences.

In Changeling; A Grand Guignol for Murderous Timesplaywright Julian R. Munds takes Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s iconic Jacobean play Changeling — about a woman who is severely punished for wanting to be in control of her own life — and invites us to reflect on it with our twenty-first century eyes. It is not a modern retelling using contemporary language or setting, but rather one that blends the 17th century tale and style with more modern theatrical tools for a new understanding of the work and its relevance today.

I am not intimately familiar with the original Changeling, nor am I a Jacobean super-fan by any means, but I did not feel that this hindered my understanding or appreciation of the piece. The incorporation of Brechtian explanatory placards certainly helped guide me through the scenes and language until I had acclimatized, and also provided nice little moments of laughter and relief.

Myself and my companion for the evening agreed that whilst the indie company made good use of minimal props and scenery, the production relies on the audience to look beyond the setting of the Box Theatre to really appreciate and be involved in the production.

The cast, led by the entrancing Lauren Horejda as Beatrice-Joanna, have mastered the language and style of Changeling so expertly that they transcended the bare space to completely immerse you in the gothic tale. Prince Amponsah, as the villainous DeFlores, had a particularly beautiful handle on the rhythm of the text without sacrificing intent or tone. I knew he was ‘the bad guy’, and yet I was mesmerized by the awful words coming out of his mouth!

In such a heavy story, the comedic moments were a welcome relief. The whole cast played into them with a little wink without being over the top, and especially amusing were Carissa Kaye and Miquelon Rodriguez as a pair of horny servants, and John Chou as Alonzo, who was particularly great at infusing his character with fun and swagger.

Any and all blood was cleaned up by a Stagehand labeled ‘Ignore Me’, whose job it was to sing beautiful, haunting plainchant musical transitions between scenes. He concludes the play with an eight-line epilogue whereupon he challenges the audience to think about and react to the way women are treated in society in a Brechtian manner.

Throughout the play, but specifically in the epilogue, Munds is asking us not to sympathize with any of the characters (it is often difficult to) but rather to observe them and their actions in order to reflect on ourselves and identify similar injustices in our own current world so that we might exact societal change outside of the theatre.

Whilst I understand the intent behind it — it mirrors the end of the original Changeling — I think we are all very aware about women and men’s attitudes towards them, from the 1600s to 2016, without needing to be told to think about it even more. In the second act especially, we see quite clearly how women are treated – with very little respect or control over their own lives. That is at the forefront of our minds throughout this play, and so I do not think it needs to be spelled out to us at the end, by a male character no less, or playwright.

Changeling; A Grand Guignol for Murderous Times was as brutal as it was thrilling, hard to watch but captivating, and stylishly handled by this talented group of performers.


Photo of Sebastian Marziali and Lauren Horejda