Theater veteran and prisoner rights advocate directs off-Broadway play

The cast members of the off-Broadway play The Castle have been called extraordinary by some. But the play’s director, 75-year-old David Rothenberg (BA ’55) disagrees.

Rothenberg says cast members — Angel Ramos, Vilma Ortiz Donovan, Kenneth Harrigan and Casimiro Torres — demonstrate an extraordinary amount of courage each time they take the stage and share their personal stories of how they ended up in prison. But, he says that their struggles with drugs, alcohol and poverty are all too common.

The Castle, Rothenberg says, “is a play about the demons that people overcome. Proof that lives can change.”

The play, which has been performed at the New World Stages in New York City since April 2008, takes its moniker from the nickname for an Upper West Side prisoner rehabilitation center.

Rothenberg, a theater press agent by trade, became a prisoner’s rights advocate in 1967 after producing John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes, a play about sexual slavery in prison.

“When you starting learning about different people and you see their humanity, you become an advocate for them,” he explains.

That same year Rothenberg founded the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to former prisoners, including counseling, drug rehabilitation, housing and incarceration alternatives.

Rothenberg retired from the Fortune Society in 1985 but stayed involved with the organization’s clients by attending weekly meetings. It was at these meetings that Rothenberg got the idea for The Castle.

Initially, he intended there to be performances just for those affiliated with the Fortune Society. To date, The Castle been performed countless times on the off-Broadway stage in addition to several special performances for prisoners at Green Haven, Rikers Island and Arthur Kill correctional facilities.

For prisoners, Rothenberg says, The Castle is more than a play; it’s a cathartic experience, because they can relate to the experiences of Ramos, Donovan, Harrigan and Torres while at the same time seeing living proof that a future can await them outside the prison walls if they choose it.

“You can’t be in prison and talk about your fears and weaknesses because you can’t betray that kind of vulnerability,” Rothenberg says, adding that hearing the cast share their tragedies and triumphs “can be a life-changing experience for the people who need it most.”

The Castle
will extend its run at the New World Stages through March. Plans are in the works for The Castle 2, which will feature four new people with new stories and perspectives.

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