“Just about anything abusive a person can do to a child, I experienced at some point,” says Casimiro Torres near the beginning of “The Castle.” Torres’ delivery is slow and methodical, mostly because he’s not acting, and neither are his castmates. Narrated by four ex-cons now sheltered at the halfway house that gives the show its title, “The Castle” illustrates the depths to which a person can sink and still recover, and while it may be cheating to call it theater, the brief show has a soul-tearing bite to it.
Even sitting down, Torres’ size impresses: He is a big guy, thickset and broad-shouldered, his weightlifter muscles shifting under a plain black T-shirt and jeans. He’s clean-shaven but looks a little tired, with short black hair and his only jewelry a wedding ring and a small St. Christopher medal on a chain around his neck. Actually, he looks a little like an off-duty policeman or a soldier; someone who can’t quite get used to being relaxed.
But Torres is not a policeman. He has, in fact, been arrested 67 times and jailed for a cumulative 16 years, after suffering through a childhood that would make Charles Dickens cry.
Onstage he sits next to Kenneth Harrigan, who also spent 16 years in prison. Harrigan’s life hasn’t been much easier than Torres’, but, unlike his friend, he studied law during most of his time in incarceration, and the bitter ironies of the justice system are not lost on him (none of the four performers have anything good to say about former New York Gov. George Pataki).
Angel Ramos and Vilma Ortiz Donovan round out the cast; of all the people onstage, Donovan has spent the least time in jail and Ramos has spent the most, neatly bookending the stories told by the other two. The performers aren’t professional actors and the set is bare aside from chairs and music stands, but director David Rothenberg has turned what might simply be a series of war stories into an exercise in humanization.
Ortiz, Ramos, Harrigan and Torres couldn’t be more different, but they’re treated exactly the same way by the state, with little regard to basic needs. Harrigan recalls one of the more outlandish displays of injustice: When he was finally paroled, one condition of his release was that he live at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, where the drug-free, hopeful ex-con lived side-by-side with guys who tried to shoot drugs into their carotid arteries and mugged one another for portable radios.
When Harrigan got to the Castle, he became romantically involved with another ex-con whom he eventually married … and then was ordered to abandon by his new parole officer, who decided the two ex-cons couldn’t live together, married or not.
This piece does not have the professional sheen that usually accompanies the shows at New World Stages, but that’s ultimately what makes the stories here so engaging. Artless though they may be, the four performers are profoundly eloquent, and for a little more than an hour, their unpretentious self-exposure demands attention.