Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Baltimore Waltz
Theatre Coup D'Etat
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Pike Street


Nicholas Kaspari, Kari Nielsen, and Kip Dooley Craig
Photo by James Hostetler
Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in memory of her brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988. Paula and Carl had long planned to travel together in Europe, a trip that was never realized. The play is an imagined account of the adventures they might have had, spun around so that Carl is healthy and his sister (here called Anna) is ill. The Baltimore Waltz can now be seen in a thoroughly engaging mounting by Theatre Coup D'Etat in the chapel of Springhouse Ministry Center, in Minneapolis' Lyn-Lake neighborhood.

As the play begins, Anna, a first grade teacher, receives horrible news from a speed-jargonizing doctor. She has contracted a mysterious new ailment, called Acquired Toilet Disease, or ATD. Little is known about this ailment, other than it is mainly striking 25-40-year-old female elementary teachers who have lapsed in good judgement and used their students' toilet, rather than the faculty ladies room. There is a feeling of shame among those who contract the ailment, and its puerile associations have kept the government and medical establishment from addressing it with any vigor. Although there is no cure, a doctor in Vienna has been working on radical treatment, and it is believed that certain drugs can slow the disease's progress.

Anna's brother Carl has just been fired from his job as a children's librarian in San Francisco for having a pink triangle pinned on his chest, using the Nazi symbol to proudly proclaim his gayness. Carl uses his liberty to take his sister on her dream trip to Europe while she is still able. They will see the sights, eat, drink and be merry—especially Anna, who has been a good girl for all her life, and declares that before it's too late "I intend to fuck my brains out."

The trip takes on the feel of film noir, with references to The Third Man, though it may be closer to The Pink Panther, given the silliness of it all, as a mystery man in a trench coat follows the siblings. There is intrigue around the identical stuffed bunnies carried by both this man and Carl. Anna makes good on her resolve to unleash her libido, which she does with volcanic gusto, from Paris to Amsterdam, to Bavaria, to Berlin, on to Vienna where Anna will contact the Viennese doctor while Carl procures the life-extending drugs.

As we follow the siblings' misadventures in Europe, it is evident that we are not in Europe at all, but in a Baltimore hospital room. The "trip" is the product of fevered imagination, fueled by the heartbreak of unfulfilled wishes and a waning allotment of time and health. Vogel cleverly has called for various items around the hospital room be stand-ins for objects that figure into their pretend vacation. Meal trays and a crutch become the airport security gate, a tray with pill bottles and Jell-O cups fills in for an elegant restaurant's dessert tray, the hospital bed serves as all manner of transport, and an I.V. stand festooned with white mini-lights transforms into a miniature Eiffel Tower.

Vogel adroitly combines the fatalism of being handed a death sentence, the unquenchable hope that spurs Carl and Anna to pursue any form of reprieve, the go-for-broke hedonism of a "now or never" credo, and the heartbreak of facing the loss of a loved one. She also cast a satiric eye at the establishment's failure to respond more quickly to this crisis of AIDS, and uses a wide range of stage motifs, usually with comic effect, such as the impossibly acrobatic sex acts Anna enjoys performed as shadow pantomimes behind a curtain. Now and then a dollop of magical realism is inserted, and there is even a tutorial on Elizabeth Kubler Ross's stages of grief. Melding these themes and styles could have resulted in a jumble, but Vogel's script provides a logic for everything she includes.

Lauren Diesch's direction is attentive to the necessary shifts in tone from scene to scene, and the need to balance material that is clearly a send-up with segments that are wrenchingly real.

All three actors do excellent work. Käri Nelson is terrific as she shakes away the veneer of a schoolteacher's decorum to begin living large, even as she feels her life withering away. Nicholas Kaspari's Carl is charming, with a sharp wit, refined tastes, the strength to be open in his sexuality, a loving commitment to his sister, and a penchant for mysteriously shady business. Kip Dooley plays a host of "Third Men" who serve as Anna's myriad of sex partners, the operators with whom Carl has shady dealings, and the two doctors. These characters are cartoon types, but Dooley portrays each with the right dose of panache or innocence, as called for.

The use of the Springhouse Ministry Center's chapel works extremely well—the stark white walls and bare lights that hang overhead set the stage for the stark reality of a hospital room, and a blank slate on which the imagined journey can be drawn. Beyond this, the setting is nothing more than a white hospital curtain sometimes kept closed, other times pushed open to reveal a hotel room. Katie Martin's costumes include Anna's simple dress made from gauzy hospital gown fabric, and all three actors have layers of coats and accessories that allow for quick changes as one scene flows into the next. Mark Kieffer's lighting is especially effective in creating focused spaces and altered moods.

Paula Vogel's brother died in 1988 and Baltimore Waltz premiered in 1991,when AIDS was still very much an epidemic. In 1992, AIDS was the number one cause of death in the U.S. among males ages 25 to 40, and by 1994 was the largest cause of death in the U.S. among all 25-40 year olds. The Baltimore Waltz was among a host of AIDS-related plays, coming after such early entries as As Is, The Normal Heart, Jerkers and Eastern Standard, and in the same time span as Angels in America and the musical Falsettos. Of these and other notable "AIDS plays", The Baltimore Waltz was the first written by a woman. It also was unique in having a central relationship between siblings, rather than lovers, in having a woman be the character who shoulders the disease, and in camouflaging AIDS itself as something that seems ludicrous—Acquired Toilet Disease—until we remember that in those years people worried about getting AIDS from toilet seats, even from being in the same room as a person with HIV.

The Baltimore Waltz shook its head at the emotional and moral disaster of the AIDS epidemic, as if to say "this is to utterly crazy to be happening," and proceeded through laughter, raw energy and tenderness to demonstrate that is was still happening. Watching it in 2017 reflects on the craziness—from then, and in new forms—that continues to break our hearts.

The Baltimore Waltz, a Theatre Coup D'Etat production, continues through June 19, 2017, at Springhouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th Street, Minneapolis, MN. For more information about this production and Theatre Coup D'Etat, visit www.facebook.com/theatrecoupdetat.

Writer: Paula Vogel; Director: Lauren Diesch; Set Design: Meagan Kedrowski; Costume Design: Katie Martin; Light Design: Mark Kieffer; Sound Design: Phillip Uttech; Dialect Coach: Jim Ahrens; Stage Manager: Jessi Kadolph; Assistant Stage Manager: Eli Purdom; Producer: James Napoleon Stone.

Cast: Kip Dooley (Third Man/Doctor), Nicholas Kaspari (Carl), Käri Nielsen (Anna).


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