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Wild, Bawdy Farce Blends With Intense, Poignant Mourning In Paula Vogel’s Intriguing “Baltimore Waltz” at Theatre Intime

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

Inspired by her brother’s death from AIDS and his unfulfilled request near the end of his life that she join him on an excursion to Europe, Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1989. It’s a play, Ms. Vogel stated in an interview, “about processing grief. It’s about love between brothers and sisters. And there’s a lot of joy in grief, there’s a lot of celebration to grief, there’s a lot of comedy in grief.”

And, she might have added, there can be a lot of confusion in grief, which this play manifests through the troubled fantasies of Anna, its mostly autobiographical protagonist. Fortunately, Theatre Intime and talented director Emma Watt have assembled an exceptional trio of actors to ensure that the wildly farcical elements hit home, the tenderness of this brother-sister relationship comes across, and the entertainment value here prevails over confusions in plot and tone.

The entire play actually takes place in a hospital in Baltimore, but, more significantly, the action of this play is set in the mind of Anna (Savannah Hankinson), as she envisions the trip to Europe with her brother. First major confusion arises as Anna imagines herself, not her brother, as the terminal patient, and the illness she imagines is ATD, acquired toilet disease, apparently contracted from sitting on the toilet seats used by the children in the elementary school where she teaches.

Her brother Carl (Daniel Rattner), wearing his pajamas with a pink triangle over the pocket throughout the play, has just been fired from his job as children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. Carl decides they will seek a cure for his sister in Europe. After a comical scene of defiant departure from the library and a scene of frustrating medical mumbo-jumbo with the doctor (Billy Cohen, who also plays more than a dozen other parts throughout the evening), they are off to the continent.

The scenes speed by at a feverish pitch — thirty in all, during the hour and forty minutes without intermission — as Anna and Carl travel through France, Holland, Germany, and eventually to Vienna to find the mysterious Dr. Todesrocheln, a urine-drinking urologist. Amidst Anna’s frenetic quest to have as much sex with as many different men as possible and Carl’s entanglement in what seems to be a cloak-and-dagger intrigue out of the 1949 Graham Greene-Joseph Cotton-Orson Welles movie classic The Third Man, the comedy is hilarious and the farcical tone prevails, despite nostalgic reminiscences about the past and fears for the future.

The Baltimore Waltz is replete with bawdy humor, clever movie allusions, sardonic medical satire, and a feast of language. The nature of the subject matter here, as well as the 24-year gap between the world of the AIDS crisis in 1989 and the world of contemporary audiences, accounts for some disjointedness in tone in this play, but the three well cast, energetic, and dynamically engaged actors prevail over all confusions and the script’s occasional excesses in plot and cleverness.

At the center of the play, Ms. Hankinson’s Anna, alternating between trench coat and negligee, is focused, in character, and appealing throughout all the vicissitudes of action and emotion during the course of the evening. She undergoes the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and much more, creating a sympathetic, warm, credible character in her relationship with her brother and with the vast range of others she meets on her bizarre journey.

Mr. Rattner’s Carl provides a worthy counterpart to his sister Anna. He is thoroughly believable, articulate, and appealing in his affection for his sister, his attempts to help her and his peculiar “Third Man” intrigues—stuffed rabbit (a sexual symbol?) in hand — through their European travels.

Mr. Cohen’s versatility and gift for comedy serve him well as The Third Man, Doctor, and numerous other roles of widely ranging ages, nationalities, and dispositions. With a vast array of costumes, hats, props, and wild wigs, Mr. Cohen delivers a high-powered dose of humor and helps to set the prevailing tone in every scene where he appears. Ms. Watson has directed this abundantly capable, committed trio with a fine sense of pacing, a rich offering of humor, and a deeply intelligent understanding of the right balance of celebration and mourning to bring clarity to much of the confusion in the text.

Set design by Aryeh Stein-Azen and Ben Schaffer establishes an appropriately simple space for this frequently changing, surrealistic comedic drama. A hospital bed is the major set piece, with a rolling hospital curtain, a chair, a table, and a platform upstage. A colorful, scenic backdrop represents highlights of the European sites Anna visits in her fantasy.

Marissa Applegate’s nuanced lighting contributes significantly to the shifting moods and scenes of the play, also to the shocking contrast — most evident at the play’s end — between Anna’s vivid fantasy journeys and the starkly-lit reality of the Baltimore hospital. (A slide show, supposedly of scenes of Europe but actually of scenes of Baltimore, should have appeared mid-way through the play, but apparently misfired on Saturday night. The actors covered skillfully with no apparent disruption in the action.)

Erin Valentine’s costumes and Jack Moore’s props help to create the multiple characters and the whimsical, often exaggerated atmosphere of the play, as the tone fluctuates from hospital sterile to child’s-nursery playful to Third Man noir.

How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about family and sexual abuse, will probably always be the play she is best remembered for, but Theatre Intime’s superb production of The Baltimore Waltz provides striking evidence of the enduring power and humor in this earlier gem.

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