Life's a Trip
The Everyman Theatre Company's production of Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz reminds us that theater isn't necessarily about expensive sets and whizbang lighting, lavish costumes, a full orchestra or a plush auditorium. All it takes is ingenuity, talented actors and the right words.
Everyman has colonized what must once have been a fairly hideous Littleton office building. The auditorium is a large room with a flat, low ceiling and equally flat acoustics, where the audience occupies metal folding chairs set on wooden risers. But within minutes of the play's beginning, the actors animate this unprepossessing space, the audience forges a kind of community, and the place is filled with empathy and laughter. By the end, an almost perfect marriage has been pulled off between Vogel's fluidly episodic play and the company's ingenuity.
In 1988, Paula Vogel's brother Carl died of AIDS. Two years earlier, he had invited her on a trip to Europe but, short of money and time and unaware that he was HIV-positive, she turned him down. She wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1989 in an attempt to recapture that lost opportunity.
Early in the play, the character Carl appears about to receive a lethal diagnosis. But -- in some kind of upside-down dream switch -- it turns out to be his sister, Anna, who is dying. Anna is a kindergarten teacher, and her illness is described in broad, cartoony strokes, like something written in crayon. It's called ATD -- Acquired Toilet Seat Disease -- and is transmitted when teachers use the same toilets as their five-year-old charges.
In these scenes, Vogel expresses some of the rage AIDS activists felt during the '80s, when President Ronald Reagan seemed determined to ignore the crisis -- or, at best, to respond with slogans rather than funding and research. At one point, a team of health-care officials holds up colorful cards promoting the government's new campaign: "Squat, Don't Sit." This is funny, but it carries far less punch today than it must have when Waltz was written. Anna and Carl leave for Europe. The episodes that follow are absurd, disjointed, oneiric -- and often frantically, almost farcically funny. Yet Vogel's grief, a constant below the bright, moving surface, gives the play its resonance and power. There's also a kind of rawness, a sense that when she wrote this, the playwright was still trying to hold off chaos and put her world back together. Anna takes on the fictional Carl's illness as Vogel must have attempted to enter her dying brother's mind; and Anna discovers, as Vogel no doubt did, that the movements of another's mind, no matter how loved that person is, are unfathomable.
Vogel has always been preoccupied with language. As Carl and Anna prepare for the trip, they go over useful phrases in French and German, punning, redefining meaning. "Sie müssen lernen," one of the other characters admonishes them sternly: "You must learn." The play's dream Europe stands for more than Vogel's sadness about losing precious time with her brother. At first it's a hilarious amalgam of symbols, preconceptions, stereotypes and bits of story: Gauloise cigarettes; French bistro food (Anna, suddenly aware of how much wretched pre-packaged food she has consumed in her life, weeps); a sexy French waiter from whom Anna receives a scatological language lesson; a German anarchist who fornicates with her in enraged contempt and is devastated to find out she's not a member of the ruling class; a Dutch boy who explains how he came to put his thumb in the dike. Or dyke. Finally, there's a crazed Groucho Marx-like doctor peddling cures that involve drinking urine.
Carl carries a long-eared stuffed rabbit with him at all times. We're told it's the one object on which he felt free to lavish his affections as a child. On some level, the toy is a representation of his forbidden homosexuality and of his very self. Yet everywhere he goes in Europe, there are rabbits like his, folded in the arms of men wearing trenchcoats and dark glasses.
In the midst of the hilarity, there are moments of terrible sadness. Anna wakes in the gray hours of morning, crushed by terror. Vogel quotes Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the stages of grief endured by terminal patients, but she goes the pioneering doctor one better. There's also lust. Anna leaves Carl over and over again, running off on nameless compulsive errands, taking her pleasure with men and women interchangeably. Carl slopes off on faintly sinister trysts with mysterious rabbit-carrying men. On top of all this, Carl and Anna's feelings for each other are charged and highly ambiguous.
Throughout, there are references to the stylish noir thriller The Third Man, a 1949 film that resulted from a collaboration between director Carol Reed and famed novelist Graham Greene -- himself obsessed with issues of truth, secrecy and spying. In the movie, an American pulp-fiction writer arrives in Vienna for an assignation with the mysterious Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. The writer is told that Lime has been killed in a street accident. He falls in love with a sad Czech expatriate named Anna. It is a full hour into the film before Lime appears, miraculously alive, having staged his own death to escape scrutiny for his illegal dealings. In one of the film's most famous scenes, he and the American have a tense confrontation on top of a Ferris wheel.
The parallels with The Baltimore Waltz are many. Before the siblings leave for Europe, Carl calls Harry Lime. On his arrival in Vienna, he encounters an oldster who explains in garbled English-German and with many a spluttered "sshplat!" that Harry Lime was run over by a car. Needless to say, there's also a scene with a Ferris wheel, but this one ends in an unexpected and inexplicably satisfying moment of pure Lewis Carroll fantasy.
Europe represents mystery; Europe represents death. The Third Man was shot in the rubble of a divided and destroyed Vienna; in scene after scene, a zither plays bouncily, emptily over a cityscape shadowy as the moon. In the play, however, it's a Viennese waltz that summons Vogel's brother back from the dead.
Christopher Tabb's direction is swift and skilled, though he might have given more thought and time to the play's final moments. Stage and lighting designer Richard Pegg (also the company's artistic director) performs wonders with suitcases and makes a virtue of the building's limitations.
All of the actors are strong. As Anna, Theresa Reid can be immensely funny, but she's also called on to carry the emotional burden of the play. Her voice, sad or thoughtful, often brings the action back from the brink of chaos. Danica Kneebone and Benjamin Toro play everyone Carl and Anna encounter, Kneebone bringing an effervescent energy to all of her roles. In weaker company, Toro would be a complete scene-stealer. He hurls himself into his parts with crazed exuberance, floating an array of unstable and outrageous accents. As the Dutch boy, for instance, he swings wildly between nationalities, sounding sometimes like an Indian, sometimes like an Ingmar Bergman character and sometimes like Peter Sellers on speed. The only problem is that he occasionally gets so carried away we lose Vogel's words.
Frederick D. Katona is a quietly affable Carl -- an omnipresent but sometimes almost invisible figure, as if he existed in the other characters' imaginations. This seems appropriate. We carry our dead with us always, but they have a way of remaining stubbornly out of focus.
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