This review of The Radicalization Of Rolfe at The Players Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Radicalization Of Rolfe
Written by Andrew Bergh
Directed by Abigail Zealey Bess
The Players Theatre
115 MacDougal Street
New York, New York 10012
Fans of The Sound Of Music will particularly enjoy The Radicalization Of Rolfe, a new play featured as a part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival, which provides you with a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening at the same time your favorite characters were singing, frolicking and romancing on screen. Did you know that Herr Zeller, the ambitious local Nazi leader (Gauleiter), had recruited Franz, Baron von Trapp's butler, and Rolfe Gruber, Liesel's love interest, as spies to provide information regarding the Captain's whereabouts and any plans he may have had to flee Austria or to ignore his orders to report to Bremerhaven to accept a commission in the German Navy? Did you know that while Herr Zeller was encouraging Rolfe's relationship with Liesel (so he could learn more about what was being said in the von Trapp household), Rolfe was involved in a homosexual relationship with Johan, Frau Schmidt's nephew? Rolfe saw no future with Johan and tried to stay away even though Johan suggested they could use marriage as a cover for their activities "as men have done for centuries." Rolfe insisted he needed to be stronger and that their relationship had to end but he found himself going over to Johan's apartment more often and spending hours at the athletic club where he and the boys would meet for "a vigorous workout." Frau Schmidt, the von Trapp housekeeper, and Franz, the butler, had already "rescued" Johan once from a boy's school in Frankfurt but a change of location didn't seem to straighten the boy out. When Frau Schmidt found out Johan was on a list of Communists about to be arrested and sent to a work camp, she rushed over and gave him money to leave the country before the borders closed. She told him to call her when he was settled and said, "For the love of God, stay out of the Athletic Clubs!"
Some of the funniest moments of the play came when references were made to the underlying plot and or text of The Sound Of Music. For example, when Herr Zeller asked Rolfe how old Liesel was, he said, "16 going on 17" and when asked how old he was, Rolfe responded, "17 going on 18." When Rolfe asked for advice from Frau Schmidt, she said, "What do you want me to do, sing you a song? Climb your own mountain, dear." There was also ample reference to Maria Rainer, the postulant from Nonnberg Abbey, who eventually stole the heart of Captain Georg von Trapp and his children. This type of linkage should have been perfectly synced and extensively researched by the playwright, but there were many missed opportunities and mistakes made. Frau Schmidt, as the housekeeper, would never be serving anyone apple strudel and when Rolfe said he couldn't sew a pink triangle onto to his clothes, Herr Zeller could have said, "Of course you can, boy. It's just a needle pulling thread!" The more direct and indirect references made to The Sound Of Music (both play and movie), the more enjoyable I feel The Radicalization Of Rolfe can be.
The star of the show is Dominic Comperatore, an extremely talented actor who plays Herr Zeller, an ambitious, hateful individual who doesn't care who he steps on so long as the end result is his advancement in the Nazi Party. In this play, Herr Zeller threatens and blackmails everyone and breaks his word more often than I can count. There was also no need for him to do so with respect to Rolfe, who was more than eager to be a good Nazi because it provided him with opportunities he wouldn't otherwise have. Herr Zeller had already successfully "groomed" Rolfe ("no one has taken an interest in me like that") and he would've done anything he asked. Yet even though Rolfe trusted him completely, Herr Zeller betrayed that trust by forcing him out of the singing competition and, in the end, threatened his life in order to obtain a little intelligence and Rolfe's complete obedience. True leaders do not have to stoop to that level to get their subordinates to be loyal to them. However, if they suspect their leader is not loyal to them and will throw them under the bus the first moment they become an inconvenience, they will not stand behind that leader. Jay Patterson fell short as Franz forgetting some of his lines and misspeaking more than once (the betrayal of a father by his son did not take place in the "Zeller family"). Although Polly Adams, who played Frau Schmidt, grew on me as the play went on, I think a stronger performer could have been found for the part. Linking up again with The Sound Of Music, Frau Schmidt makes Rolfe promise he will "take action to ensure the safety of the von Trapp family." Keeping that promise, losing his gun and delaying blowing the whistle, is what ultimately gets Rolfe in hot water. We also learn that the six nuns who sabotaged the cars were arrested and sent to work camps.
The highlight of the show was the depiction of the loving relationship between Rolfe and Johan. Logan Sutherland, a talented, charismatic actor with a strong stage presence, was perfectly cast as Rolfe Gruber, an innocent young boy trying to decide what is right as he seeks to make his way in the world. Alex J. Gould's natural acting style was well-suited for his portrayal of Johan, a more experienced young man who knew his way around an athletic club. Johan revealed to Rolfe a complete list of gay men he might know. Rolfe was totally amazed regarding who was on the list. Johan responded by telling him, "We're everywhere. All you have to do is look." (as he glances out into the audience of The Players Theatre) - Hilarious! Finally, Johan explained to Rolfe how to take the "bauchnabel" self-assessment test. Failing it might explain why Rolfe was still a virgin and why he ran away after kissing Liesel for the first time. It is at that moment that we hear Johan speak to Rolfe the following, fateful words, "You'll never be one of them!"
The Radicalization Of Rolfe leaves us with an observation revealing "the truth about work camps," which is that "you can be in them" or "you can run them." I guess that is an important life lesson and every person must, in the end, decide what they are willing to do and say in order to stay out of them. Would you spy on a neighbor? Would you blackmail a friend? Would you kill someone who was threatening your family? Or in the case of Rolfe, perhaps you would simply recite a list of names ending with - Johan Schmidt.
You won't regret seeing The Radicalization Of Rolfe. While it needs a little touching up, you will still have a very good time at this show, which plays on Sunday, August 21, 2016 at noon and on Wednesday, August 24, 2016 at 4:30 p.m. at The Players Theatre. Tickets cost $18.00 and can be purchased at www.FringeNYC.org