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The Castle

This documentary theater piece written and performed by a quarter of former convicts is admirable but not theatrically engaging.

By New York City
(Clockwise) Casimero Torres, Kenneth Harrigan,
Vilma Ortiz Donovan and Angel Ramos Torres
in The Castle
(© Filip Kwiatkowski)
(Clockwise) Casimero Torres, Kenneth Harrigan,
Vilma Ortiz Donovan and Angel Ramos Torres
in The Castle
(© Filip Kwiatkowski)
You can't help but admire the four writer-performers of The Castle, at New World Stages, who are also ex-convicts who have found new hope through living at an Upper West side residential facility for the formerly incarcerated named The Castle. While this documentary theater piece, conceived and directed by David Rothenberg, details each of their life stories -- and proves that it is possible for them to be reintegrated as productive members of society -- the straightforward testimony the quartet gives simply does not translate into a theatrically engaging experience.

None of the cast members -- Vilma Ortiz Donovan, Kenneth Harrigan, Angel Ramos, and Casimiro Torres -- are trained actors, so that really shouldn't be held too much against them. The production even tries to compensate for this fact by having them wear microphones to be better heard, and placing their scripts on music stands in front of them, so that they don't have to worry about memorizing their text. But it is in the construction of their overlapping monologues that the show runs into trouble.

Based on interviews that Rothenberg conducted with his cast, the four narratives all follow a similar trajectory of unhappy childhoods (sometimes involving abuse), a descent into drugs and crime, one or more prison sentences, and a saving grace through their stays at The Castle. Although we're given a number of facts about these peoples' lives, we only rarely get a glimpse into their personalities or individual quirks that would make these former inmates easily relatable. We can admire the performers' courage for speaking out about their pasts, but it's difficult to get emotionally involved in their stories.

It's perhaps both unfair and inevitable that The Castle be compared to the more successful documentary theater piece, The Exonerated. Both deal with former prisoners who have undergone enormous hardship and have had to fight to reclaim their lives. But while the latter contained the tension and drama that makes for a good piece of theater, The Castle offers few surprises. And while it's easy to applaud the individual success stories that are depicted within the show, it's harder to justify telling theatergoers to spend up to $45 a ticket to see it.


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