From the fluorescence of a hospital room to the streets of Paris, from the lamentation of a diagnosis to the trysts with a bellhop, from the innocence of a childhood bunny to the secrecy cloaking a drug deal, Paula Vogel’s “Baltimore Waltz” whipped audiences from scene to scene with humor, intrigue and the occasional tugged heartstring this past weekend. The Honors directing thesis of Michelle Fennell ’12, the play chased an eccentric sibling pair through the streets (and bedrooms) of Europe, as envisioned by Anna (Alexandra Izdebski ‘13) following her brother’s death. “Michelle was great to work with,” Izdebski said of her director. “She’s brilliant . It was really interesting to explore the play with her because she sees the world so complexly, and she’s also very sweet and very caring and very warm.”
The play is partly Vogel’s tribute to her own brother, Carl. Unaware Carl was HIV-positive, Vogel opted out of a trip to Europe he proposed in 1986. After his death two years later, Vogel created “The Baltimore Waltz,” the romp through Europe she never got to take with him. It was one of her earliest pieces of work. Vogel has since won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1998 for her play “How I Learned to Drive,” run the graduate playwriting program at Brown University and served as Chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama.
The social commentary surrounding HIV/AIDS stigma operates primarily through the projection of a fictitious disease onto an unassuming schoolteacher. In the play, it is Carl’s sister Anna (Alexandra Izdebski ’13) who is diagnosed with the terminal ATD: Acquired Toilet Disease. Anna insists her diagnosis be kept a secret as Carl (Samuel Swift Shuker-Hsines ’14) sleuths his way across Europe, researching alternative medicines and cures to help his sister. The play takes the stigmas surrounding AIDS during the time period and projects them onto a different target group: elementary school teachers, in danger of contracting ATD from their prepubescent charges. In doing this, Vogel deconstructs some of the negative stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the disease; she allows Anna to be the victim, and she’s careful to have her do no wrong, according to Izdebski. It isn’t until the end of the play that we learn that Carl, in fact, has had AIDS all along.
“Vogel picked a single schoolteacher who’s a very relateable character to go through the sickness,” Izdebski said. “In no way can the audience pinpoint her as a villain — she’s constantly the victim. She got it from being a schoolteacher, so was just doing her job, living her life, and this was put upon her. You don’t see her going out and doing drugs, she’s just living, simply living, and she acquires this disease. In this sense, it’s a period piece .. it’s exploring something that was very pertinent in the ‘80s: the unfolding of the AIDS epidemic at first how no one knew what was going on, and how the gay community was targeted and victimized vs. vilified.”
“In the midst of an AIDS epidemic and panic, Vogel wanted … us all to connect with the sick and marginalized through her witty writing and through her completely palatable and ordinary straight female protagonist, acting as a bridge to the denigrated and hurting gay population,” Fennell wrote in her Director’s Notes. “The call for people to treat the ill and ostracized as human beings makes this play timeless and poignant long after this particular fear has receded into the background.”
While the threat accompanying Anna’s terminal illness remained close to the surface throughout the play, other common threads ran beneath the vignettes, threading together what Fennell described as “pearls without a string.” The mystery shrouding Carl and his childhood plush bunny, Anna’s fear and Carl’s mastery of language, Anna’s loneliness and consequent sexual exploits, and the sinister appearances of the “Third Man” (Ben Hattem ’12) held the various snapshots together. Additionally, various break-out waltzing scenes, in which the cast used dance to express an element of the narrative, offered physical embodiment of emotions and relationships throughout the performance.
The three-person cast successfully created an aura of intimacy, both familial and otherwise. The growing bickering between Anna and Carl as the trip progressed, stemming from conflicts of interest (museums vs. sex), created a believable and relatable sibling relationship. Hattem, playing a total of 10 different roles, crawls under the covers with Anna four times: as a restaurant waiter, a little Dutch boy at age 50, a virgin from Munich, and a radical student activist.
The European adventure ultimately ends with Carl’s death, after he is pushed off the roof of a building by the Third Man upon refusing to hand over his presumably cash-stuffed rabbit. Believing he is purchasing legitimate medical drugs for his sister, Carl refuses to pay after being told the drugs are a sham, and is thereafter murdered. Transported back to a hospital from the hotel room where Anna finds — and waltzes — with her dead brother, we discover Carl has been sick all along, and the trip to Europe was scheduled to take place after his recovery. The two never physically left the hospital in Baltimore; the trip has all taken place in Anna’s imagination; and Carl has died of AIDS.
“Anna’s not that complex of a character,” Izdebski said of her role in the play. “She doesn’t want to be alone, she loves her brother, and he’s dying, and once he’s gone she’s truly going to be all alone. That’s why she deals with it through this dream-like state – because she’s internalizing Carl’s sickness. To take it away from him? I don’t know. So she can understand him better? I don’t know. I think it’s a combination both. I think she deals with it through this dream to explore what he’s really going through but also to take it on in the hopes of somehow taking it away from him.”
Audience member Nathan Cheek ‘15 thought the performance “was great. I thought it was really impressive that they pulled together a full-scale production with only three actors, and how the sets, the lighting, the sounds, and the acting all came together to make a really great show.”