I spent my Father’s Day afternoon in the darkened chapel of Spring House Ministries, watching the second-to-last performance of Theatre Coup d’Etat’s The Baltimore Waltz, by Paula Vogel. Was I feeling sorry for my poor little mid-western-orphaned-self? No, I can’t imagined having a better time, than if my former-board-treading vater had been sitting there beside me. In fact, my dad would have really enjoyed this play. It’s smart, face paced, funny and has just the right amount of bathroom humor.
By that, I mean, Anna, the show’s protagonist, has been diagnosed with ATD otherwise known as Acquired Toilet Disease. This tongue and cheekiness garners the appropriate laughs, but, like the play itself, has a more sinister subtext. ATD is a comical metaphor for the early attitude associated with the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, and Anna, an elementary school teacher, has contracted the virus by sitting on one of the school’s public toilets. I know, it sounds silly, and is funny in the show, but that irrational fear of “catching” AIDS, and then of people with the disease, was real. Trust me, I remember the PSA’s. This play serves as an ironic reminder.
Described as her most autobiographical work, Vogel fantastically explores a fictional trip to Europe that her brother Carl (also Anna’s brother in the play) invited her to take two years before he himself succumbed to the AIDS virus. In fact my title “open casket, full drag,” is a quote from a letter Carl wrote to Vogel about his impending memorial service that she published as a prologue to her text, I think, to highlight the strength of his character and the nature of their unique relationship.
The profundity of this personal piece, as both her tribute and apology to her brother, is very clear in the tender, childlike, world of the play. It even borders on precious, as is to be expected when writing about something so obviously dear to one’s heart. Lauren Diesch, in her Minnesota directorial debut, leads her talented trio through the whimsical vignettes of Vogel’s creation with a steady and able hand, grounding the whimsy just enough that we enjoy the fairytales without having to weed through saccharine sentimentality. The acting is genuine and the complicated relationships believable. The costumes and their pieces guide the audience to specific settings, and/or help change character, quickly and simply. The lighting compliments all of the above, either going from present day in a light white wash, to memories dissolving into a nostalgic sepia; or, better yet, bursting into bright colors-no longer representing physical location, but cleverly illustrating character thoughts, impulses and emotion. The transitions are crisp and deliberate, with actor entrances/exits, the light changes, or a quickly drawn curtain from the exceptionally creative set conceived by Meagan Kedrowski. I also applaud Diesch for orchestrating the movement (it’s called WALTZ for goodness sake) in a sparing but artful way, something that could have been cheesy if overlooked or overdone. She and Anna (Kari Nielsen, clearly a trained dancer) handle it with grace and efficacy and it’s lovely.
One of the things I appreciate about Coup d’Etat is the embracing of their location. I have seen two different church spaces transformed, with seemingly little to no effort, into 17th century Salem, Massachusetts (The Crucible), and this one, set in a hospital room at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore MD, as well as various imagined places in Western Europe. One of the most striking choices (or a serendipitous coincidence, remember I saw this in the afternoon), was that during any full blackout, the church’s rosace of a stained glass Jesus was lit up by the afternoon sun. It appeared glowing at the apex of the space almost sitting in judgment over the action below. Again, intentional or not, it was an appropriate addition to the production given the political and religious views of “those” people who had HIV and AIDS in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I think Ms. Vogel would have gotten a big kick out of it!.
If I had any issues, it was with the ceiling. Darn high ceilings. This play is definitely a language piece and chock full of accents (bless you Kip Dooley), unfortunately the cavernous-ness of the small space made some words fly off into the eaves. Sadly I lost some of the intimate dialogue and heavily accented stuff. Although, I’m not sure what they could have done other than pad the entire place and who has time or funding for that? Also, (if I was being really picky), the play seemed to have several false endings. I’m not sure if that is director or playwright, but I felt there could have been some pacing adjustments made nearer the end of show. That said, I enjoyed myself immensely and feel that I was treated to a special theatrical experience. I can absolutely relate to Cherry Jones (Anna in the New York premiere) who said Paula Vogel “opens your imagination to a freedom not known since childhood.” In my opinion, the folks of Theatre Coup d’Etat wonderfully and thoroughly embraced that sentiment. The show closed Monday night June 19th and I’m sorry if you missed it, but keep your eyes and ears open for their next production. I’m excited to see where they’ll go next...maybe I’ll bring my dad.