BEHIND THE "MUSIC":
"The Radicalization of Rolfe" Gets a Second Coming at NYC Fringe Encore Festival
Andrew Bergh's "The Radicalization of Rolfe" was one of the works being premiered at the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival this past August. Inspired by the the classic musical "The Sound of Music", the new play is a "backstory"/re-imagination of what was going on when Julie Andrews' Maria von Trapp WASN'T singing. This lively play expands the roles of several of the movie's secondary characters, with the titular Rolfe as the focus of the story. "The Radicalization of Rolfe" was one of the winners of the 2016 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Awards, and it's being brought back to the New York City stage for an encore run this October.
Considering the intense devotion that many fans have for "The Sound of Music" worldwide, any new vision of the enduring musical or its iconic characters would be a risky move. Thankfully, both the playwright and the cast pay great respect to their 1965 inspiration. And, most engagingly, they all seem to have fun with the piece as well-- despite the underlying serious subject matter. "The Sound of Music" had memorable songs and lovable characters, but there was still the dark cloud of upcoming danger moving in on the pretty scenery as the film progressed. Likewise, "The Radicalization of Rolfe" does have its light and downright funny moments, but make no mistake: Despite its comedic and occasionally campy touches, the play is actually smart, searing drama based on real history. "Rolfe" deals with the persecution of gay men in Nazi Europe. It's a subject which was previously covered in the 1979 play "Bent" by Martin Sherman (and the play's 1997 movie adaption), as well as the 2000 documentary "Paragraph 175". Still, this real life dark chapter of LGBT history has remained largely under-explored on the stage and screen.
The play's central character is "the perfect picture of Aryan youth", the tall and blond Rolfe Gruber (Logan Sutherland). "Sound of Music" fans remember Rolfe as the love interest of the oldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl. Not a boy but not yet a man, Rolfe is "17 going on 18". Rolfe, however, isn't romantically interested in Liesl. He's carrying on a discreet love affair with a handsome, free-thinking university student named Johan (Alex J. Gould), who's also a Communist. In an Austria on the verge of The Anschluss (annexation by Nazi Germany), this was a forbidden romance. Rolfe is facing a seduction of a very different kind by the power-hungry, propaganda-spouting Herr Zeller (Dominic Comperatore). Zeller is pressuring Rolfe into wooing Liesl, in the hopes of getting more knowledge about her father Captain von Trapp-- a person of interest in Berlin. He also instructs Rolfe to watch out for "deviants", telling him: "I must warn you: A handsome man like you will attract the-- how shall I say?-- the advances of a particular type of adult male whose interest in you is of an unhealthy nature. These men are deviants. Diseased. They corrupt from within. They need to be rooted out and eliminated. Do you understand?" Zeller promises Rolfe power and status within the Nazi Party as a reward. Conflicted about his own sexuality and also looking for some kind of "purpose" in his life, our Rolfe is torn.
At the same time, the Nazis are also putting pressure on the von Trapp housekeeper Frau Schmidt (Polly Adams) and butler Franz (Jay Patterson) to find a governess for the von Trapp family who would be cooperative with the Nazi agenda, rather than a singing, guitar-playing postulate nun. Along those same lines, they also want the Captain to marry a woman who would similarly advance their cause (i.e: The Baroness Elsa Schraeder).
As the audience learns, one of the goals of the Nazi Party was sending gay men (called "deviants") to concentration camps, where they were identified by pink triangles. Needless to say, This puts the play's central character Rolfe, his lover Johan, and their circle of friends at their all-male "athletic club" in the most danger of all. It all becomes a complicated game where loyalties are tested, ethics are challenged, and the stakes are high. The story becomes a cautionary tale about the politics of power and fear. In 2016, that message couldn't be more timely.
The aforementioned comedy in "The Radicalization of Rolfe" comes from the MANY humorous and frequently clever references to its inspiration, "The Sound of Music" (The playwright even inserts a joke about edelweiss, and has one character advise another, "Climb your own mountain, dear!" ). The audience, clearly devotees of the musical, not only appreciated the jokes; they ate them up like homemade strudel. In fact, a critique that one could have for "The Radicalization of Rolfe" is the difficult question of whether audiences who never saw "The Sound of Music" would appreciate the play in its own right. Others may question Rolfe's anachronistic use of the a certain term (Let's just say that it's the extended form of "WTF".) ... although the audience didn't seem to mind at all.
Director Abigail Zealey Bess keeps the pace moving, and the energetic cast keeps up with it. The scenes between Rolfe and Johan are particularly poignant. As the only drop of estrogen in a testosterone-heavy cast, Polly Adams as Frau Schmidt is a delight to watch. Dominic Comperatore's Zeller is so unyieldingly cold in his adherence to Third Reich propaganda that his character is almost humorous. That same iciness, however, becomes downright eerie in the final chilling scene.
"The Radicalization of Rolfe" re-opens as part of the Fringe Encore Series 2016 at The Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, New York City on Sunday, October 23, 2016. The play runs through Saturday, October 29th. Visit www.sohoplayhouse.com/fringe-encore-series-2016 for more information and tickets.
(Photos by Dixie Sheridan.)