Any great artist knows how to turn personal grief into an aesthetic achievement of some sort. Acclaimed playwright Paula Vogel did just that when she wrote The Baltimore Waltz, first performed in New York in February, 1992. The play was Vogel’s response to her brother’s 1988, AIDS-related death, which occurred before Vogel and her brother, Carl, ever had the chance to travel through Europe together, as the two of them had wanted. The Baltimore Waltz tries to imagine what such a journey might have been like.
Essentially a series of comic vignettes underlined by farce and tragedy, Vogel’s play traces the European odyssey of Anna (Vogel’s self-personification) and Carl (he keeps his name in the play), all while highlighting the intimacy between the siblings themselves. Both are seeking pleasure of different sorts throughout their excursion: Anna through her numerous dalliances, Carl through Europe’s limitless supply of “high culture.” But Anna is in Europe for another important reason; she needs to find a cure for a terminal (and fictional) illness, ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), which she contracted while using a bathroom at an elementary school (she is a first grade schoolteacher). Vogel clearly wanted to address the AIDS epidemic, a painfully personal subject, in a manner that was absurd and sidesplitting, but also dignified and touching—and she succeeded. The Baltimore Waltz is lighthearted yet poignant, conscientious but not heavy-handed or message-driven.
When I saw The TRUF’s recent production of The Baltimore Waltz at Canal Park Playhouse, the play itself was fresh on my mind because I had seen it performed at Vassar College, just six months earlier. The three student actors in Vassar’s production seem to have understood the play and its stakes more lucidly than the actors in this most recent performance do. In the Vassar production, it could not have been clearer that the entire play was driven by Anna and Carl’s love for and loyalty to each other. The actors playing Anna and Carl showed that their intimacy – which often blurred the distinctions between the platonic and the erotic – was unmatched and unmatchable. No matter how many times Anna and Carl went their separate ways, there was always some sense that they were never really apart; both of them knew that they needed each other to feel safe and reassured.
The relationship between Anna (Monica O’Malley de Castillo) and Carl (David Mangiamele) in The TURF’s production is strangely bloodless; neither actor manages to convey a sense of deep affection for the other. If anything, Anna and Carl seem annoyed with each other most of the time.
The production also fails to highlight the fantastical charm and whimsy surrounding Anna and Carl’s journey. This may have something to do with the oversimplified set: a small bed with white linens in the middle of the stage, and white curtains draped around the perimeter, with a useless oval mirror hanging in the middle of it all. The actors certainly do navigate their small environs quite well, but a play like The Baltimore Waltz must envelop its audience in a world of European decadence and luxury. Vogel’s play demands an imaginative audience, but it also demands imaginative actors, technicians, set designers, and of course, an equally imaginative director who can give Vogel’s wacky vision the right combination of absurdity and dignity. This production lacks all of the above, and so the audience’s imagination cannot be expected to go very far.
Photos by Guillermo Laporta Castillo
The Baltimore Waltz
Canal Park Playhouse
508 Canal Street
Through November 10, 2012