‘Radicalization of Rolfe’ at Island City Asks ‘What If?’

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Rolfe has a boyfriend in playwright Andrew Bergh’s imaginative backstory to “The Sound of Music.” Credit: Island City Stage.

Anyone who has ever seen “The Sound of Music” knows that the musical Von Trapp family escaped the Nazis by sneaking away in the night and crossing the Alps to freedom. But have you ever wondered what happened to their friends and family left behind?

New York City playwright Andrew Bergh asked that question and the result was his 2016 play “The Radicalization of Rolfe,” receiving its world premiere March 29 – April 29 at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.

“Rolfe” could easily be compared to “Wicked,” the hit Broadway musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel that created a backstory for the wicked witch from “The Wizard of Oz.”

For 55-year-old Bergh, “The Sound of Music” was the iconic movie that encapsulated the nostalgia for white Christian culture of the 1950s and ‘60s. Every Easter—years before VHS tapes, cable and on demand service—the broadcast of that movie became a cherished tradition in households across the country, including his own in suburban New Jersey.

“Once I decided to write this play, in the research I started to do, all of these really dark, dark facts started to pop up and colored the way I approached the play,” he recalled.

A documentary included on his DVD copy included a biography of Maria von Trapp, the stern former nun who married her employer, a retired Austrian naval captain with a brood of young children.

“Maria von Trapp was no Julie Andrews,” Bergh agreed with a chuckle.

Also, the musical gives the impression that most Austrians were against the Anschluss with Nazi Germany and that was not clearly the case. In his research, Bergh discovered that nearly an entire generation of young German soldiers were killed in the war, men who would have been the age of 17-going-on-18-year-old Rolfe, Liesl von Trapp’s love interest in the musical and movie.

The plot twist in Bergh’s play is that Rolfe turns out to be gay. Beyond that, he remains mum on any other important points, other than to mention that, as a boy, Bergh harbored a crush on Liesl, not Rolfe.

“I decided to make him gay because it added to the conflict in the play,” Bergh explained. “Here’s the thing that I discovered after writing it: It seems to be a generational thing. I was shocked at how many people under 30 or 35, had heard of it and knew the songs, but never watched the movie!”

That impossibly small percentage of gay theatergoers in Wilton Manors who may have never seen “The Sound of Music,” shouldn’t fret, Bergh promised.

“You don’t need to have seen the movie to understand the play. It’s about how this young man becomes a Nazi and then must deal with the consequences of his decisions…If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll get a lot more of the references, but that’s not required,” he said.

Bergh, who has been vacationing in South Florida for years, is looking forward to Island City Stage’s production. He attended the first rehearsals and praised artistic director Andy Rogow stewardship of the play, which was named best of the 2016 New York Fringe Festival and is now in demand by other regional companies.

“Andy has been terrific to work with,” he said. “I don’t know what’s coming after Island City Stage, but it’s really sweet that of all places where this theater was located, it happened to be Wilton Manors.”

Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors, presents Andrew Bergh’s “The Radicalization of Rolfe,” March 29 – April 29. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.


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