Fringe Encore Series Review:‘The Radicalization of Rolfe’ at SoHo Playhouse in NYC

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A deserving winner of the FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award for a play, The Radicalization of Rolfe, produced by Glenn Krutoff, is a uniquely witty original take-off on The Sound of Music. Instead of focusing on the aristocratic von Trapp family and the children’s new governess Maria, playwright Andrew Bergh explores, through a gay lens, the supporting characters and the impact of the Nazi Anschluss on their lives.

Logan Sutherland and Alex J. Gould. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.
Logan Sutherland and Alex J. Gould. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.

Interspersing lyrics from the Rodgers and Hammerstein score into the dialogue, the script is clever and amusing, as it challenges the audience to recognize the well-known show tunes from which they’re taken (e.g., when asked his age, the titular messenger-boy-turned-Nazi-recruit responds, “Seventeen going on eighteen.”). But the funny pop-culture references are underscored with intimate views of the devastating effects inherent in the familiar historical themes of socio-political indoctrination, intolerance, and work-camp atrocities that drive the play, as the impressionable young Rolfe is torn between his secret lover Johan, his courting of the unseen Liesl von Trapp (of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” fame), and his ambition to have a higher rank and a better life, as promised to him by the Nazi Gauleiter Herr Zeller. 

The story’s setting in 1930’s Salzburg is evoked by Audrey Nauman’s period-style and station-defining costumes: Nazi uniforms for Rolfe and Zeller; servants’ uniforms for the von Trapps’ butler Franz and housekeeper Frau Schmidt; and casual wear  for Johan, known to Rolfe from the local athletic club. Beautiful lighting by Emily Grayson follows the characters around the simple scenic design, consisting of little more than a few folding table and chairs, as director Abigail Zealey Bess moves the action around the stage from scene to scene, engaging the audience and triggering the different locales, encounters, and confrontations with an effective balance of laughs and sensitivity.

A fine cast of five convincingly reveals the smartly re-imagined characters’ personalities and motivations with both humor and insight. Logan Sutherland stars as the conflicted Rolfe, “the perfect picture of Aryan youth,” who joins the Nazi movement in his quest for success, while hiding his true self to everyone but his paramour. We see him transition from a starry-eyed innocent to a willing participant in spying and betrayal for the advancement of his own career, before being faced with the ultimate life-and-death consequences of who he is and what he has done.

Jay Patterson, Logan Sutherand, and Dominic Comperatore. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.
Jay Patterson, Logan Sutherand, and Dominic Comperatore. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.

As Herr Zeller, Dominic Comperatore is laughably and chillingly cold and calculating, while first luring and then threatening his Austrian recruits. Jay Patterson and Polly Adams provide a telling contrast between Franz and Frau Schmidt, during the critical period when, as everyone notes, “change is coming.” He is resentful of his low status, critical of his wealthy employers, and belligerent to those who stand in his way, while being belittled by Zeller and outdone by Rolfe; she is warm, loving, supportive, and perceptive, as she gives her nephew Johan crucial information that could save his life. And Alex J. Gould is both enticing and resolute as Johan Schmidt, who remains true to his identity and committed to a new beginning, far away from his Nazi-controlled homeland (in one of the show’s most comical and heartfelt scenes, he sits with Rolfe at the edge of the stage and dreams about “the Town” to which he hopes to escape).

The Radicalization of Rolfe, while making us laugh and testing our knowledge of the songs and situations of The Sound of Music, delivers a disquieting conclusion that still shocks and resonates.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission. 

The Radicalization of Rolfe plays through Saturday, October 29, 2016, performing at SoHo Playhouse – 15 Vandam St., NYC. For tickets, purchase them online.