“The Baltimore Waltz” opened last night at Theatre Intime. It tells the story of Anna and Carl, a brother and sister, embarking on one final trip to Europe as a terrible disease threatens to separate the two forever. Playwright Paula Vogel wrote it as a memorial to her brother, Carl, who died of an AIDS-related illness; it is a fantasy of the overseas adventure she was never able to have with him.
“If ‘The Baltimore Waltz’ seems strange to you,” director Emma Watt ’13 writes in her director’s note, “it is because it speaks the language of grief ... It seeks symbols and reinvents memory to make sense out of nonsense.”
What is most wonderful about this production is its creation of a language that plays upon a tension between the familiar and the unknown, the safe and the dangerous. Most obviously, this materializes in the manner by which the play lives in two worlds. There is the hospital world, which is lit in harsh whites and features the ominous hospital bed that cannot help but draw attention to itself with its loose wires and uncaring frame. Then there is a children’s world that envelops their travel experience; the hospital bed is covered in a playful bedspread, and the phone is just a toy. Their suitcases are reminiscent of an old Lisa Frank backpack. However, the two worlds intermingle in a provoking manner. While the hospital bed may be covered in a bedspread, it is still a hospital bed, and while their phone may be a toy, it does nothing to belie the sinister conversations it facilitates.
Anna (Savannah Hankinson ’13), announces early in the play, “It’s the language that terrifies me.” As executor of this fantasy, she must create the language of her dream as it plays out. As her mortality-driven libido ramps up overseas, she must continuously make the choice between the sexy stranger and the cuddly brother, and it is that tension that drives this production.
For those familiar with previous Intime productions, it would be nearly impossible to have missed the names and faces of many of this production’s players. Watt and lead actors Hankinson and Daniel Rattner ’13 have been staples of the Intime stage and management team for the past four years. Now outgoing seniors, this production is in many ways their last hoorah at the theater with which they have become so identifiable.
The production itself is a virtuoso. Billy Cohen ’16 performs a multitude of characters as the “Third Man,” with distinct specificity. In his first appearance as a hospital doctor, he walks in straight lines, turns with his head, shifts his body and then continues walking. The stylized, heightened realism that he brings to each of these characters gives us a wonderful grounding for each scene. Hankinson and Rattner make so much sense on stage together; I wanted to go on vacation with them. The scenic elements, designed by Aryeh Stein-Azen ’14 and Ben Schaffer GS, were simple, well-executed and brilliantly utilized by Watt. The production was, on all accounts, a show of tremendous skill and fine craftsmanship.
If I have one gripe with this production it is in its treatment of AIDS, or lack thereof. At the beginning, we get some viscerally effective hospital sounds, but we lose sight of the medical reality of the situation pretty quickly as the production progresses. Watt smartly begins her director’s note with a comment from Vogel, saying, “I don’t think this is a play about AIDS.” With all due respect to Theatre Intime, Watt and Vogel, any play written in 1992 by a gay playwright in memoriam of an AIDS victim can’t not be about AIDS. When this play premiered in 1992, the play itself paralleled the escape that Anna dreams. People went to the theater to escape the outside world, where the U.S. AIDS death count approached 170,000. In 2013, AIDS is an increasingly less visible part of our nation’s health landscape, and I think we lose that element of the dramatic circumstances, upon which an original production could rely just because of the times. We forget about the ticking clock of death that propels the play, driving toward that endgame of grief and acceptance. At the play’s end, when Anna bemoans what disease can do to a body, I don’t know if we get a full sense of what that means anymore without a little help. On a dramaturgical level, the problem is simply that if this play is a dream — an escape — from what are we escaping? What turns this dream into a nightmare?
The moral of this story? You should go see “The Baltimore Waltz.” It’s a moving production in so many respects and an important story about how we can learn to live with our memories. Above all else, it’s a show that makes you feel and think, and if that’s not a way to spend an evening at Princeton University, I don’t know what is.
4.5 out of 5 paws.
Pros: Strong visuals and directorial concept.
Cons: Lacking in historical context.