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Waltz with Death

The Baltimore Waltz by Paula Vogel directed by Brad Rouse at the Loeb Experimental Theater November 17-19

By Joyelle H. Mcsweeney

Brad Rouse's production of Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz is an AIDS play turned "inside-out." Through the farce-like adventures of its protagonists, Anna and Carl, The Baltimore Waltz subtly addresses both the tragedy of AIDS, and the relationship of the playwright to her brother, Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988.

Anna, a thirtyish schoolteacher, contracts Acquired Toilet Disorder (ATD), a fatal scourge confirming what every mother already knew--that no good can come from using bathrooms at bus stations. Anna (Francesca DelBanco) and her brother Carl (Michael Stone) set off on a wild trip across Europe, in part to see the cities they've always dreamed of, in part to search out a mysterious quack doctor touting a remedy based on the drinking of, well, urine.

These various paramours are played gamely by Aaron Zelman, who spends more time stripped down to his underwear than he does in costume. Zelman also plays the grave doctors who try to save Anna, as well as the threatening underworld figures Carl must deal with.

Faced with the exhausting challenge of such disparate roles, Zelman's performances never lose their freshness; so completely does he master each characterization that it is easy to forget that all the same actor plays all these roles.

DelBanco and Stone also handle their roles with aplomb. They render their relationship as brother and sister instantly believable; the various strains Anna's disease and her promiscuity put on this relationship are conveyed with delicacy and subtlety. Their rapport, especially when they reminisce about their childhood closeness, rings touchingly true, and is especially poignant in a play dedicated to Vogel's own lost bother. But Carl and Anna are neither melodramatic nor cliched. Amid the kaleidoscopic, surreal happenings of Vogel's plot, one never loses a sense of these characters' essential normality and love for each other.

The progress of the plot is revealed in vignette form, with the actors occasionally narrating, giving lessons in the language of the various countries on the voyage, or analyzing the psychological states of the characters. Colors signify changes of mood and locale, as do changes in music. One dream-sequence scene takes the form of a strange ballet narrated by voiceover. Thankfully all these effects occur with such precision and speed that the audience does not get distracted by the technical side of the production.

The plot itself is sometimes suspended altogether for moody dance sequences, slide shows of the AIDS quilt and sights of Baltimore. In these interludes the poignancy of The Baltimore Waltz becomes clearest, indicating the links between the satire of the play itself and its deadly serious subtext, AIDS.

The audience laughs when the government responds to ATD by recommending that Americans "hold it" rather than use public bathrooms; the audience stops laughing during the interludes, when one realizes that the government's warnings about AIDS are not always helpful, and membership in certain "high risk" groups becomes as stigmatizing as the disease itself. The disjointed, bewildering pace of the play also tacitly conveys the unpredictable and devastating ravages of the disease, both on the body and the psyche.

Brad Rouse's production of The Baltimore Waltz manages to evoke Vogel's various levels of meaning compellingly, with engaging performances by the actors and seamless work by the technical crew. The Baltimore Waltz is an exciting and innovative take on the AIDS play, with relevance that reaches beyond AIDS itself to the effects that both growing-up and loss have on familial relationships.

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