New Empires Theatre Company, at Chase Park Theatre.
Experts at blood-and-guts thrill shows, Jacobean tragedians Thomas Middleton and William Rowley threw their audiences a plot the way a zookeeper hurls meat to lions--and the crowds ate it up with equal gusto.
Not much has changed. Their 1622 potboiler The Changeling, rooted in some very twisted love, offers an engrossing mixture of psychological terror and physical mayhem. How many plays offer audiences a chastity truth potion that, quaffed by a true virgin, reveals her purity through her sneezing, laughing, and pouting fits (in that order)? Parallel plots involve a madhouse and the corrupted heroine's doomed attempt to make one unwanted wooer kill another so she can deceive her real lover. In the final memorably melodramatic scenes the stories collide with a literal vengeance, and that collision gives David Kropp's surefire staging a combustible excitement.
Admittedly the plot has its holes. The gaps hardly matter while the play is rushing toward a very satisfying retribution; later you wonder if it had to be quite so lean to be mean. But the plucky New Empires ensemble, surging around the intimate Park District stage, generate showers of sparks from this tough old script. John Harrell rages magnificently against the lost innocence of his false love Beatrice. Playing her with quavering hypocrisy, Penny Slusher provides a scary picture of trapped treachery. Equally forceful are Aaron Christensen as a fraudulent lunatic and a true lover (a delicate distinction) and Thom VanErmen as the disfigured suitor who, out of perverse adoration of his scheming Beatrice, erupts in a one-man crime wave. Love has never been messier.