Monday, April 3, 2017

"The Baltimore Waltz"

The Baltimore Waltz
Paula Vogel

Patrick Alparone, Lauren English & Greg Jackson
“I’m sorry ... There’s nothing we can do.” 

How many, countless times have those few words by a doctor sent individuals and their loved ones into a tailspin more uproarious than Dorothy’s tornado and on a journey that sometimes can be as strange, as scary, but somehow in the end also as beautiful as Oz?  In her 1992 The Baltimore Waltz -- as much a love letter and a personal journal as it is an Obie-winning play – Paula Vogel employs childlike fantasy, rollicking satire, and sexual escapades wild and wooly to create a hilarious, touching travelogue of how a brother and sister deal with such an unexpected, medical verdict of finality.  Magic Theatre revives twenty-five years after its initial West Coast premiere The Baltimore Waltz in a production that is as politically relevant, heart-throbbing and poignant, and yes, as funny/sad as it was on its opening night in 1992.

First-grade, Baltimore teacher, Anna, has learned she has contracted a mysterious disease – still unknown to the general public – for which there is no known cure.  Known as ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), she finds out she is likely to be “done in by a toilet seat,” infected by some unknown, snot-nosed kid in her class.  Her brother, Carl, who has just been sacked by in his job at the San Francisco Public Library for wearing a pink triangle, persuades her that in the time left, she and he should take a long-delayed grand tour of Europe.  There they will search for a mysterious, Viennese urologist (80-year-old Dr. Todesrocheln) who reportedly has found a miracle cure based on uriposia – drinking urine.  After initial hesitation but with increasing excitement, the two quickly pack themselves and Carl’s favorite stuffed bunny, Jo-Jo, and head off on a frenzied, time-limited trip full of many languages, random trysts between the sheets, and encounters with a mysterious man in trench coat with his own stuffed bunny. 

Patrick Alparone & Greg Jackson
As the siblings travel together, they are often once again children with their special games known only to them; their long-past-created hand shakes of mirrored motions; as well as brother-sister tendencies to taunt and tease with no mercy.  At other times, each is the independent adult out for personal pleasure and need-satisfaction with only passing regard for the other’s desires.  Their individual moods both match and clash – one perhaps now fevered to escape while the other collapses in exhaustion and later, the two cuddled to protect each other from mounting fear.  And along the way, there are multiple encounters with characters resembling in somewhat warped but familiar fashion those they once saw in Mad Magazine, childhood storybooks, or colorful travel brochures – or at the last visit to the doctor’s office.

Patrick Alparone
Brother Carl, a young gay man, loves to expound about art, museums, and the sights of the cities he and Anna are visiting.  His favorite position is often curled in bed; and his preferred choice of wardrobe is a pair of flannel pajamas, soft slippers, and a jacket bearing a pink triangle for all to see and many to shun.  Patrick Alparone brings a determined drive rushing toward some unknown end with a mixed combination of silliness and sadness, of mystery and known, and of hope and despair.  In his eyes and quick, side glances is something he knows and we do not.  In special moments with his sister, there is the magical relief from the perpetual worry they share in a disease they neither yet understands nor can believe.

Patrick Alparone & Lauren English
Loren English is simply superb as Anna, showing an incredibly wide range of emotions and responses (both spoken and silent) to the plague that has plunged suddenly into her heretofore, typical life as a school teacher.  In one of the more telling sequences of her journey, she illustrates one-by-one (with the help of Carl) the six stages of coming to terms with one’s fatal illness (based on Elizabeth Kubla-Ross’s stages of dying and grief), adding with much erotic imagination and athleticism her own seventh stage: Lust.  Ms. English finds many ways to illustrate her journey of dealing in dreams and reality the news no one ever wants to hear, much less experience first-hand, with someone loved as much as Anna does her brother.

Greg Jackson & Lauren English
Identified as The Third Man in the program, Greg Jackson transforms (often in seconds) into over a dozen characters met along the way by Carl and/or Anna.  Whether a jargon-spouting doctor speaking what sounds only as fast-spit gibberish, a sexy garcon playing up to Anna for more than just a tip, or a 50-year old Little Dutch Boy recounting the story of his own miracle (before also creating with an eager Anna a new, XXX-rated, bedtime story), Mr. Jackson changes accents, looks, ages, occupations, and nationalities with ever-convincing hilarity and ever-increasing mystery.  But through all the switcheroos, his one constant is a pair of blue, latex gloves – never leaving his hands until the last scene.

A bed with croissant-embedded headboard, one covered in a quilt decked with colorful tulips, or a hotel platform for repose in sultry, red leather are just a few of the simple but effective ways that Nina Ball takes her journeyers around the world in somewhat less than eighty days.  Sheer curtains, like those in a medical examination room, constantly open and close (revealing a never-disappearing exit sign always in the appropriate language).  The changes of curtains and set pieces are enabled by two stagehands donning various geographic-specific hats and outfits (only a small part of the imaginative, often bizarre costumes encountered thanks to the creativity of Meg Neville).  The lighting of Heather Gilbert ranges from muted to lushly colored to dusky and dreamy, only coming to full white starkness at the play’s revealing climax.  Music permeates the many scenes from beginning end (or at least almost end), with the tunes chosen and delivered by Theodore J. Hulsker to match every stereotype films have taught us to have of the cities and countries of Europe. 

All has been masterfully directed with full wit, much sensitivity, and uneasy mystery by Jonathan Moscone with never a moment’s sense of lag as the clock can almost be heard ticking down to an unwanted but certain conclusion.

A brother and his sister move toward a final dance they both know will come all too soon but a waltz that is somehow joyful in its sweeping steps of grace.  While terminal illness is a journey no one wants to travel alone, the traverse with a treasured companion can be one remembered with smiles and even downright laughs mixed among the angry and anguished tears of loss.  For any and all of us who have been down that difficult path with a loved one, Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz – especially as currently staged by Magic Theatre -- rings true of the sights and sounds we each experienced and still daily recall with much mixture of happiness, sadness, and of course, love.

Rating: 5 E

The Baltimore Waltz continues through April 16, 2017 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley

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