Friday, October 23, 2015

From the Archives:
The Baltimore Waltz
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Originally published in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine


Although much has been discovered about HIV/AIDS in the last twelve years since Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz first premiered in 1992, produced by The Circle Repertory Theatre in Greenwich Village, today maybe more than ever, is the right time for a revival of the Obie award winning play because of its multiple timeless themes: AIDS is still a real part of our lives and its cure is yet to be found, even more, the number of HIV-infected people has increased since the play was first written in 1989, only one year after Paula Vogel's brother' Carl died from AIDS-related causes; second, today's administration considers AIDS issues of similar importance as the administration of the eighties; third, as the Paul Vogel tells Signature Theatre, The Baltimore Waltz is a play not so much about AIDS, but about coping with the grief caused by the death of a brother or sister or a loved one, and learning to live and laugh again through this grief, as a healing process. 
Mask-arade. B&W photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Mask-arade. B&W photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Paula Vogel believes she can best keep her brother, Carl Vogel, alive through a play-rather than through a novel, for example-because, only in a play the story takes place in present time.  While in real life, over the years, she's learnt to use past tense when talking about her brother, Carl will forever come to life, in present time, with each performance of The Baltimore Waltz. 
The revival of the play premiers this year at the Signature Theatre in New York City, as part of Paula Vogel Playwright-in-Residence 2004-2005 Season (November 16, 2006 - January 9, 2005), marking the 17th anniversary of Carl Vogel's death (January 9, 2005).
Set in the eighties, the one-act, 85-minute play uses fantasy to bring to reality the European trip Paula Vogel never took with her brother.  The Baltimore Waltz is Vogel's way of grieving her brother's death, using the satirical and at times frenzy story of an imaginary European trip of Anna (Kristen Johnston; Sex and the City), an elementary Baltimore school teacher and her brother, Carl (David Marshall Grant, The Stepford Wives, television's And The Band Played On, Broadway's Angels in America for which he was nominated a Tony Award), a San Francisco public librarian, while in search for a cure for Anna's fatal illness-ATD, or Acquired Toilet Disease, contracting from using her students' restrooms. 
The transition between the present time reality and the imaginary journey is marked by an alarm clock that comes off and interferes with Anna's plea directed to the audience which starts and ends the play.   
When Carl and Anna learn from their Baltimore doctor (Jeremy Webb, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU), that his "hands are tied up by the FDA" Carl decides to take try a miracle drug-giving patients to drink their own urine-an Austrian urologist, Dr. Todesrocheln (German for "death rattle") had to offer.  Carl also takes with him Jo-Jo, his childhood plushy bunny and symbol of his love and trust legacy for his sister.  But Anna doesn't understand this symbol, nor does she want to spend more time with Carl, instead, she lives each day of the trip as if it was her last, indulging in good food and long-neglected sexual experiences with bell-boys (Webb, in each case) from each country they visit (France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany), while Carl has his own sexual experiences with a man (Webb) who also carries a plushy bunny. 
The only hint of the rude reality trickles its way into Anna's imaginary trip through the projection of the photos, supposed to be taken while in Europe, yet showing familiar Baltimore sights.  The photos represent the first trigger back to the reality and force Anna to long for what is real in her life-her students and her home, a yearning coming to life through Anna's own words: "I had enough.  I've seen enough of the world I wanna see."
But, for the trip not to have been in vain, Carl and Anna have to find the magical cure they are searching for.  And to do that, Carl has to meet with his old German friend, Herr Harry Lime (Webb) he once considered a God, now living by the motto: "if you want to make billions, you sell hope; it's a business."  Paula Vogel introduces Lime as the third man from the 1949 movie with the same name (where Harry Lime, a German con-artist sells diluted medication in post-war Vienna and, in order to escape the law, goes "underground" by faking his own death).
     While Carl talks with Harry Lime and reflects over the consequences of their younger behavior that made Carl "grow old before [his] time, Anna waits for the doctor, in a hospital room.  As she refuses to try the urologist's [Webb] treatment, his words: "Where is your brother, you fool?  You left your brother in the room alone, you fool!" trigger her mind back to present time reality where the Baltimore doctor (Webb) emphasizes the tragedy of the present time: "I'm sorry, there was nothing we could do."  What Carl left behind for her were his plushy bunny and a few brochures for the trip to Europe they never took.
After trying, unsuccessfully, to revive her brother's stiff body, Anna addresses the audience again: "I could never believe what sickness can do to your body.  I must learn how to use the past tense."  The play ends with a grand finale, of Carl and Anna dancing Strauss' "Emperor's Dance," remaining together and bypassing the death's barriers.