After all those sequels and prequels and back stories based on “The Wizard of Oz” and “Peter Pan,“ isn’t it time somebody did the same for “The Sound of Music”?
Playwright Andrew Bergh reminds us who Rolfe is in the very first scene of “The Radicalization of Rolfe,” when the Nazi Lieutenant Zeller asks Rolfe how old he is.
“I am seventeen, going on eighteen,” he replies.
Ah yes, Rolf Gruber is the blond-haired baritone and telegram delivery boy in “The Sound of Music” who sings a love duet with Liesl, the eldest Von Trapp daughter, but turns into a Nazi.
The new play adds an e to Rolf’s name for some reason, and makes him gay. We see (discreet) post-coital scenes with Johan, who is in effect his boyfriend, though Rolfe is not happy about it.
Rolfe: I’m making changes. I’ve decided I’m going to be someone. And so obviously, this has to stop. I mean, you can’t be someone, someone of purpose, of importance, with this going on… Are you listening to me?
Rolfe: So… We stop. Ok?
Johan: Ok. We stop. Finished.
Rolfe: You don’t believe me.
Johan: Not for a minute.
When Rolfe tells Lieutenant Zeller his age, it gets a big laugh. But there are only a handful of laughs in the play after that…intentionally so. “The Radicalization of Rolfe” is not a campy spoof. It is also not a musical, although Rolfe does sing a couple of songs a cappella. The plot, demonstrating that the Nazis were evil and corrupting, is not exactly full of original insights, nor self-evidently rooted in extensive research.
I suppose these are good reasons why Bergh’s play shouldn’t work. But it did for me, in part because it’s a fascinating exercise to re-view “The Sound of Music” from the oblique perspective of some of its minor characters. (While the main characters of “The Sound of Music” never appear, the “Rolfe “characters recount what’s happening to the Captain and Maria and the children in nearly every scene.) Director Abigail Zealey Bess takes the material seriously and ratchets up the tension, aided by the fine acting of its five-member cast – Jay Patterson as the outwardly obsequious and inwardly scheming Von Trapp butler Franz who is spying on the von Trapps for the Nazis; Polly Adams as the intelligent and well-meaning Von Trapp housekeeper Frau Schmidt; Alex J. Gould as her nephew and Rolfe’s irresistible love interest Johan; Dominic Comperatore as Lieutenant Zeller, a no-nonsense Nazi who is neither a clownish Klink (from Hogan’s Heroes) nor a psychotically sadistic Standartenführer Hans Landa (from Inglourious Basterds.) Zeller is of course evil, but in a coolly practical way. “The country needs young men like you,” he tells Rolfe, recruiting him to seduce Liesl and spy on her father. Above all, Logan Sutherland makes for a believable Rolfe, who starts off easily manipulated because of his naïveté and ambition, then hardens while in his youthful arrogance he believes that he has everything under control — until he learns, brutally, that he can control nothing. For all the inevitability of the ending, it is no less chilling.
The Radicalization of Rolfe
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