Paula Vogel’s 1992 The Baltimore Waltz received the Obie for Best New American Play, yet has rarely if ever been performed locally. For this reason alone, Rude Guerrilla’s just opened production is sure to generate considerable interest. Director R.J. Romero writes that Vogel’s work has been “a major presence throughout my adult reading and theatre viewing life,” making it a certainty that love and care have gone into this production. Romero’s sound design is especially effective in creating a fanciful, romantic atmosphere, and his cast demonstrate real commitment to achieving the director’s goals.
The opening prelude, with its giant stuffed rabbit suspended above a hospital bed and characters waltzing with each other, with small stuffed rabbits, and finally with the giant bunny is imaginative indeed. The first scene, featuring San Francisco children’s librarian Carl on his last day at work, excitedly showing off his pink slip to the attendant kiddies, then enthusiastically instructing them to cut out pink triangles and wear them with pride, tells us that we are in for the kind of humor often described as quirky.
Quirky soon turns to absurd as Carl travels to Baltimore where his schoolteacher sister Anna learns she is dying of ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease) which, apparently, she has contracted from sitting on a toilet seat in the Girls’ (as opposed to the Ladies’) Room at school. This diagnosis sends Anna and Carl off on a European adventure during which she attempts to have casual sex with as many men as possible and tries out a supposed cure involving the drinking of urine, while a character called “Third Man” (a la Graham Greene’s novel and Carol Reed’s film) pops in and out of their journey wearing many wigs and sporting many accents.
If this last part comes across as confusing, it is perhaps because around the time Anna and Carl began their tour through Europe, I got lost in Vogel’s avant garde theatre of the absurd and The Baltimore Waltz lost me, only to regain my attention in the very moving final scenes in which it becomes apparent that the sibling terminally ill with AIDS had been Carl all along, and that Carl and Anna’s frolics through Europe were apparently going on in her imagination.
If I were more of a fan of avant garde theater, The Baltimore Waltz might have managed to hold my attention. Perhaps only actors the caliber of Tony-winning Cherry Jones and Joe Mantello, who starred in the original production, can make the play work. In Rude Guerrilla’s production, Adrien Jade Paul (Anna) and Angel Correa (Carl) have many good moments, and Frank Javier Aranda has fun with the Third Man’s many accents and wigs. Nevertheless, despite their best efforts and those of director Romero, The Baltimore Waltz ended up being not (forgive the mixed metaphor) this theatergoer’s cup of tea.
Rude Guerilla Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.
January 11, 2009