Theatre critic Wade Bradford sums up Baltimore Waltz as, “The story of the play’s development is as fascinating as the creative product. In the late 1980s, Paula [Vogel]’s brother discovered he was HIV positive. He had asked his sister to join him on a trip through Europe, but Paula Vogel was not able to make the journey. When she later discovered that her brother was dying, she obviously regretted not taking the trip, to say the least. After Carl’s death, the playwright wrote The Baltimore Waltz, an imaginative romp from Paris through Germany.”
Baltimore Waltz by Paula Vogel is playing at Rep Stage in the Studio Theatre thru September 13, 2015, a small but elegantly appointed stage in the center of Howard County Community College. While we got comfortable awaiting the show to start, there was music playing. Music I knew like “Pie Jesu” by Faure, and “Nearer My God” to thee, mixed with unlikely operatic renditions of “I dream of Jeannie” and others.
Directed by Suzanne Beal this show is elegantly crafted to demonstrate not only loss but the lengths of imagination to combat that which is real.
Unlike most of the shows I review, I had never heard of this one, had no expectations or preconceptions and for me is a rare and nerve-wracking experience. In addition to the show, and I will get to that in a moment, I learned that the entire Baltimore/DC area will be participating in “the groundbreaking Women’s Voices Theatre Festival…when over 50 professional theaters will simultaneously produce…a world premiere of a play by a female playwright during the fall of 2015.” And First Lady, Michelle Obama is the Honorary Chair of this lofty endeavor.
The Baltimore Waltz uses actors and characters in a manner rarely seen in contemporary theater. While many shows have certain characters also playing one or two others, in this show the character named Third Man, played by veteran Washington actor Sasha Olinick, seamlessly switches from one character to another playing as many as 25 different entities in the short one act 70 minute performance. His use of different languages, accents, costumes and wigs had me mesmerized. When researching the show, I see that many educators use this production when they are teaching acting technique.
The play is a modern experience of life, loss and denial as most of the show has the main character Anna, played by the ever so talented Michelle Eugene, becoming ill from a disease that only affects 20-40 year old single school teachers. She then mentally travels to Europe with her brother, of which they share space way too close for siblings. We begin the show with the handsome and understanding character Carl played by Ben Cunis, Anna’s brother, wearing pajamas under other garb for the entire show. Apparently he is fired for wearing a pink triangle. His anger and tenderness, concern and frustration all encompass his complex characterization.
The audience assumes that this may mean he is advertising his sexuality in a way that his employer objects, as he is fired for wearing it. He then becomes available to go on a European vacation that Anna is too timid to go on alone. Carl brings with him a stuffed bunny which the audience is trying to figure out what is in it, contraband? While the bunny might represent many things, I understood it to be the writer’s desire for the characters to go back to their youth, when they could play together and sleep together without condemnation. For an adult man to be carrying around a bunny is inappropriate and silly. Meeting up with a character also carrying a similar bunny perhaps is the sexual encounter of his youth being remembered, I really could only guess on this.
Anna, again with a psychosomatic illness so rare, that they had to travel to Europe to find someone even studying it, is also pretty sexually active with just about anyone she can. Her promiscuity has us all shutter, but the scenes are hilarious. Also worth noting is the constant poking of the medical community in the explanation of illness that is so complex while you know he is speaking English you still can understand a word the medical community seems to say. When you string together more than one “itis” it becomes preposterous.
Directed by Suzanne Beal this show is elegantly crafted to demonstrate not only loss but the lengths of imagination to combat that which is real. Costuming design by Jessica Welch adds to the confusion of seeing one thing but hearing another. We see Carl in hospital pajamas while it is supposed to be Anna who is sick. The quickness of the costume change for Mr. Olinick was brilliant. The audience really is clueless until the end what is real and what is imagined. However for these Baltimore area patrons, the sharing of faux pictures of Europe were replaced by fuzzy (the screen was made from modesty curtains seen in medical facilities) of Baltimore with famous streets and the Bromo Clock and Disney while being told that it is the great palaces of Europe is the theme for this play. You are watching one thing, being told it is that thing, when actually it is just in our imagination. Don’t listen to your ears look with your eyes to see the truth.
Advisory: This is a show suggested for 16+ to mature audiences.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Note: Free parking and handicapped parking (construction has the parking lot not marked clearly so if it is your first time, get there a few minutes early.
The Baltimore Waltz plays through September 13, 2015 plays at Rep Stage in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.