The Baltimore Waltz
Who Redhouse Arts Center
Where 201 S. West St. Syracuse
When Through Feb. 2
Tickets $15-25; $10 for students
Review by Greg Cwik
The Baltimore Waltz, Paula Vogel’s series of semi-coherent, comic vignettes, is ostensibly a charade of language and communication breakdown. The play begins with a wiry young woman named Anna (Kate Metroka), tall and slim, her hair pulled back neatly and her face hidden by black thick-frames, telling the audience about her desire to travel being thwarted by her inept ability to speak French.
Brioche, bidet and bildungsroman are among the only words she knows (all three of which figure appositely into her misadventures). The lights then focus on her brother, Carl (Adam Perabo), a sassy gay librarian with a similar nerd aesthetic, who addresses a group of imperceptible children from the other side of the stage. He tells them this will be his last day with them. He’s just received a pink slip because he wears a pink triangle—nothing to be ashamed of— and they, too, can all wear pink triangles. He supplies them with scissors and construction paper of the appropriate color, at which point his indiscernible employers (who are “personality challenged”) tell him he can start applying for unemployment, right now. With a swift, propulsive jerk of his most vulgar finger, Carl tells his now former employers to “go fuck themselves”—in French, of course.
Within these first five minutes, Vogel gives us all we need to surmise the slivers of tragedy lacing the farcical one-act, but the deluge of quirky humor and sexual hijinks flow freely and without respite. You don’t really have time to meditate on the grief percolating beneath the meta-melo-tragicom—you’re too busy laughing, deep, abdominal-aching guffaws (I almost kneed the lady in front of me in the back of the head several times, as the tiny theater doesn’t offer much leg room). The Baltimore Waltz is, in a sense, a pensive depiction of our inability to verbalize the most afflictive, corrosive emotions; it vivisects humor’s role in subverting sorrow.
Anna and Carl go to the doctor (John Bixler), where they learn (in a wonderful fire-hose spewing of medicinal jargon and five-syllable words) Anna, who teaches first grade, has a fatal disease contracted from a children’s toilet. So the siblings decide to go on a jaunt across Europe. Carl brings his beloved bunny, and Anna brings her libido. “I’m gonna fuck my brains out,” she tells the doctor. And she does: shedding the nerd façade, Anna hops from bed to bed throughout the duration of the 80-minute play, essentially a fragmentary montage of sack-tumbling and Oui! Oui! Faster! Bien! Bien! while her brother lies in a different bed, moping in stoic solitude.
The Redhouse makes eclectic and imaginative use of a stage the size of an upper-middle-class living room. A lone bed, a window, a sliding door and a curtain make up the entire set. We go from a hospital to a train to a hotel, from Baltimore to France to Germany to Vienna to other countries my ethnocentric East Coast mind could barely process. Characters go through frequent costume changes, sometimes right in front of the audience in a bit of meta-humor. John Bixler, who portrays more characters than I have fingers, steals every scene he’s in, even when he doesn’t say a word. He channels Andy Kauffman in his uproarious accents—he articulates well enough to differentiate between his many personas: his seedy, sordid French, shouted from beneath bed sheets mid-coitus; his angry German, shouted into a telephone in preparation for coitus; his Dutch, which manages to make coitus almost adorable (“I put my tum in da hole!”).
Experiencing The Baltimore Waltz is like watching the fornication of postmodern musings and potty humor. Carol Reed’s classic film noir The Third Man plays a significant role, with allusions and references both subtle and obvious harkening to Orson Welles’ enigmatic Harry Lime (here played by Bixler) and his dubious scheming of homemade medicine in post-war Vienna. Anton Karas’ singular zither score pops up in a handful of scenes, and the famous slanted shot of Welles standing forebodingly in a door way is projected against the backdrop. Then we get a scene in which Bixler bombastically explains the DOs and DON’Ts of going to the bathroom. In any given one-minute stretch, characters may discuss poop, Gertrude Stein, penises, Dadaism and John Baptiste Charbonneau, with nary an eye batted at the nonsensical associative meandering. The deft wordplay mingles bodily fluids with modernist allusions, from Dr. Strangelove to jokes about drinking piss.
The acting is artificial, melodramatic and as precise as a cuckoo clock: this, of course, is the point. The immensely unrealistic, cold, purged-of-emotion play offers little room for improvisation because Director Steven Svoboda has calculated every utterance and every bit of blocking with exactitude. Metroka and Perabo don’t so much have chemistry as the bickering, platonically-touchy siblings, but rather work in unified tandem like cogs in a well-oiled machine. The unnatural articulation and Fellini-esque absurdity—characters popping up in the background, sauntering across stage to read from a travel guide, narrating from a telephone—is great fun for the first 70 minutes, but the artificiality becomes a devastating memory in the final moments, when the performers drop the hyperbole and, in one epiphanic moment, the comedy is stripped of its humor.
The entire show has been a wishful fantasy unfolding in Anna’s mind while Carl lies dying of AIDS in a hospital bed. This shouldn’t be shocking—the play is pervaded by many slivers of clarity offering hints of Carl’s imminent death. The program even includes a letter from Vogel’s brother, coincidentally named Carl, explaining what he would like to have done for his funeral. Vogel based the play off of her own brother’s death from AIDS in the late ’80s, and the audacity and confusion of The Baltimore Waltz reflects those turbulent times. The countless experimental treatments, the veil of guilt, the rampant promiscuity, and the disorienting pathos of a disease whose cause was unknown are all portrayed with lucidity; yet, this final revelation still feels like a sucker punch to the heart.