Jay Stern’s The Changeling evokes the confrontational intimacy of a minimalist theater production, its performances so well rounded, while also remaining distinctly and emotionally pointed, that they might as well be unfolding but a few feet from the viewer. Adapted from the 1622 Jacobean play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, it is a refreshing exercise in Renaissance dramatics, truly independent in its aesthetics and all the more strengthened for its bare-bones approach. Shot over six days for only $25,000, the history of its cast and crew dates as far back as 12 years, a familiarity that manifests itself in the almost hallowed resonance between the performers, whose interaction is not unlike that of a traveling theater company whose every performance is just as impassioned as the last.
The logistical differences between watching a projected image and witnessing a live performance make themselves apparent in some of the film’s staging; characters’ secretive monologues are within obvious earshot of other persons, chance encounters are made more deliberate within a fuller set than they would be on stage, and so on, yet these are all necessary hurdles both cleared and made believable by the deliberately stylized performances and guileless filmmaking approach. Its locations are reflective of its budget—scant and unflourished—yet operating within such a limited space adds to the film’s utter lack of pretension. As a result, The Changeling’s plot becomes an even more potent commentary on the social barriers and gender roles that make up the crux of its dramatic conflicts, its events accruing the qualities of a parable that speaks far beyond the limitations of its own time and place, both of which remain specifically unidentified here.
Beatrice Joanna (Wendy Herlich) is the daughter of the wealthy Vermandero (James Prendergast), who, despite his daughter’s affection for the good-natured Alsemero (Chris Brady), has arranged for her marriage to the powerful Alonzo (Craig Wichman), a man she cannot bring herself to sit over tea with, let alone love. Enter De Flores (Clyde Baldo), a respected servant of Vermandero who harbors a secret love for Beatrice, even despite her rank and pronounced hatred of him; a wretched grimace overtakes her whenever the man even approaches her being. Yet when she longs for the freedom to love whoever she chooses, he is willing to do whatever is necessary to win her favor. Together, they make a pact that draws blood and unforeseeable results in the necessary engagement in additional sins so as to maintain the secrecy of their first vile act together.
The Changeling’s opening shot evokes a precious bird trapped within an invisible cage: Beatrice sits longingly at a sun-tinted window, while a young girl—a means of spiritual escape devised by her own imagination—frolics along the property outside her residing mansion. This device is one newly invented for this adaptation, effortlessly and unobtrusively underscoring the play’s feminist subtexts, here allowing The Changeling’s heroine to imagine a better life while also reflecting her own downward spiral into social morass; like a maze with no way out, her determined-at-birth status allows only evil means of escape. Herlich gracefully portrays this example of self-devouring bourgeois standards in a remarkably deliberate performance that never reduces its gestures to pure mannerisms. If The Changeling leaves the viewer wanting anything, it would be for the projection screen to lift after the credits have rolled, revealing its flesh-and-blood performers on a live stage.