nytheatre.com review by Lucile Scott
April 20, 2008
Forget set, lighting, or trained actors: The Castle is a sort of documentary play in which four formerly incarcerated individuals, each sitting in a chair with a music stand containing notes perched in front of them, recount their lives before, inside, and after prison with raw honesty and occasional tears.
Angel Ramos, bespectacled and wearing a sport coat, speaks with a soft NPR-ready voice of serving 30 years in prison and emerging to confront cell phones and going to the grocery store. Vilma Ortiz Donovan discusses the low self-esteem and roller coaster of poor decisions that lead her to serving two terms in state prison. Casimiro Torres, wearing a tight black t-shirt and considerable stoicism on his handsomely chiseled face, talks about entering institutions at age six and finally, after 67 arrests, determining never to return to one. Kenneth Harrigan recounts how he began reading law books during his 16 years behind bars and became an advocate for prisoner rights after his release and now lobbies high profile politicians in addition to working directly with former inmates.
Indeed, all four turned their lives around with the help of the eponymous Castle, a home for the recently released run by The Fortune Society, a nonprofit group that advocates for and serves ex-prisoners. After producing a 1967 play about a youth detention center, Fortune and Men's Eyes, David Rothenberg founded the society and later decided to direct and write this play in collaboration with the four people onstage.
The Castle serves more as a live documentary making a political point about the failure or the criminal justice system than as traditional theatre. The audience must confront injustice up close and personal without the buffer of a screen or actors. But while there are a few riffs on former New York Governor Pataki and his treatment of prisoners—including his decision to take away the one program proven to keep prisoners from coming back, the college education program—for the most part, the political jabs remain implicit. No one spouts bleak statistics. They just talk about being born into a world of crime and drugs and getting sucked into a system and cycle of crime and institutions that seemed designed to keep them down, not to help them rise above.
While each story is different and moving, the telling remains broad, and with the exception of Torres, the cast rarely delves into the kind of details that really let us into their world. They speaks in alternating monologues, their tales and arc paralleling as they turn to drugs during their troubled youth, get incarcerated, get released, often get re-incarcerated, and then each find the strength to change and break out of the cycle, eventually making their way to the Castle, which unlike most state-sponsored organizations helps them get the resources necessary to really do so. You leave not only moved by the stories and the courage it takes to tell them, but also by the power of art to help the people who make it heal.