A castle rich with compelling narratives
By Jerry Tallmer
The Castle is a brooding, imposing four-story edifice on Riverside Drive at 140th Street, visible from the West Side Drive. Erected in 1913, it has in its time served as a Catholic girls school, a Yeshiva, and then an empty eyesore that became a crack house.
In 1998, it was acquired by the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that puts men and women emerged from prison backif not indeed for the first timeon the road to life. Since 2002, it has served as a residence for from 40 to 50 such ex-prisoners, gradually winning over the good will of what had been a suspicious to hostile set of neighbors. And some of those neighbors have lately been powerfully moved by a playwell, a theatrical eventtelling the story of four of those residents, and of the castle itself, to such effect that performances have been extended, Sundays and Mondays at 3 p.m., through March and perhaps beyond.
The four author-actors, ranging in age from 40 to 52, are Vilma Ortiz-Donovan, originally from Long Island; Kenneth Harrigan, a black man from the Bronx; Angel Ramos, out of East Harlem; and Casimiro (Caz) Torres, who grew up all over Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The prime mover, co-author and director of the piece is Greenwich Villager (since 1962) David Rothenberg, who at the now late lamented Actors Playhouse, just below Sheridan Square, in 1967 produced a play called Fortune and Mens Eyes out of which, on that same stage, sprang the Fortune Society itself.
We came into being as a result of a play, says lifelong theater lover and longtime press agent Rothenberg, So now theres this play.
His efforts over the years to get ex-convicts interested in theater have met with mixed, results from Thats not my world to if I could get used to Broadway theater.
And then there was Hamzan Hakim.
Do you think the world is ready for a Muslim and a Jew to be good friends? Rosenberg would ask him. The answer was yes. I took him to lots of plays, and his responses were very sophisticated. I said to him: You know, we ought to sit down and do a play about you.
Well, Hakim left the castle, got married, got a job as a counselor, and at 42 had a heart attack and died. I didnt think of a play anymore until Caz Torres told me how he and Hanzan had been hanging out together, determined to change their lives.
That led me to ask four people at the Castle to give me a one-page biography including their background, their childhoodmostly horrible childhoodsand how they got in trouble.
The four autobiographers were the same peopleVilma, Ken, Angel, and Cazwho now sit on a stage at the Castle and spill out their experiences and emotions in stingily telling words.
The Exonerated was actors telling their stories, says Rothenberg. Here its real people telling their stories.
If you want your heart broken, just for one, listen to Caz Torres tell how, at age 5, he and his brother Nino, 6, were repeatedly forced by the six guys who hung out in our house to fight one another until they were as battered and bloody as Michael Vicks dogs. And how he and Nino always got caught stealing food for survival.
Last summer, Rothenberg says, the five of us sat in a room and I interviewed them. The stories came pouring out as I talked. Then suddenly somebody else would tell an anecdote as I talked and Id say: This goes in there
and in that way The Castle took shape. So, yes, I wrote it, but this is a collaborative effort.
The private performances for friends, neighbors, and Fortune Society members had audiences gasping and crying, says Rothenberg. Added shows were quickly sold out, so now the schedule reaches through March or further.
Im making my debut as a director, says the Rothenberg who has been in and of the theater world for more than 40 years. (He was also, guttily, the first openly gay person to run for City Council in1985. And then I ran for a bus in 2001.)
Fortune and Mens Eyes was and is a wrenching drama by a Canadian, John Herbert, now deceased based on his experiences in a youth detention center. It ran a year Off-Broadway and then was done by one company or another all over the world. It was strong stuff. So is The Castle.
The Castle. A theatrical event. Sundays and Mondays at 3 p.m. at the Castle, 630 Riverside Drive, at 140th Street. $25 per person. (212) 255-4834.
Happy P.S. Producer Eric Krebs has picked up the show and will open it Off-Broadway at New World Stages, on 50th Street, with previews beginning March 30.