The premise of The Baltimore Waltz could lead you to believe it’s a quirky and bittersweet comedy about a sister who imagines a European trip that she and her brother were denied when he died as a young adult. It’s true that the play was inspired by the death of playwright Paula Vogel’s brother Carl, who succumbed to AIDS in 1988, but The Baltimore Waltz is no Lifetime movie: It’s a dark mindbender, bitterly satirical and dense with symbolism.
SpringHouse Ministry Center
Theatre Coup d’Etat is now presenting the Obie-winning 1992 play at LynLake’s SpringHouse Ministry Center, where a sanctuary becomes a hospital room that in turn becomes a succession of European cities as Anna (Käri Nielsen) and her brother Carl (Nicholas Kaspari) take an imagined journey that reflects Anna’s real-world preoccupations.
In the alternate universe where Anna and Carl succeed in crossing the Atlantic, it’s Anna who’s sick: The first-grade teacher has contracted ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), which she seemingly caught by using the classroom lavatory. There’s hope of an experimental cure abroad, but that hope recedes as Anna grapples with the reality of her impending death.
Meanwhile, Carl — who’s left alone to tour cultural landmarks while Anna initiates desperate sex with a panoply of men — is engaged in mysterious transactions with a contact (Kip Dooley) who has a thing for Carl’s stuffed bunny. Yes, that’s a metaphor. (Or is it?)
The Baltimore Waltz (named for the city where the real-world siblings seek medical treatment) is a window into the sad, confusing, infuriating experience of AIDS in the ‘80s. The doctors don’t seem to know anything, offensive insinuations are pervasive, and grief is compounded by a profound sense of cosmic injustice.
Anna attempts to put sex to many uses, though in the end it’s little more than a distraction. From an inexperienced boy to a libidinous server to a would-be revolutionary who sees fornication as an act of political violence, Anna makes her way through a series of unsatisfying couplings. It’s a reminder that AIDS put an end to an optimistic era of sexual liberation, and the desperate absurdity of it all is accentuated by the fact that Dooley, who plays every one of Anna’s paramours, wears a pair of Crocs throughout.
It’s not an easy play — emotionally or intellectually — but Coup d’Etat’s strong production is alive to the several levels on which the story works. It’s a highly episodic show, and director Lauren Diesch gives each scene its own energy while remaining attentive to the overarching structure.
The show almost completely belongs to Nielsen, who brings a fierce focus to her character’s tumultuous series of epiphanies. Kaspari is winning and supportive, but his character steadily recedes into the background as Anna becomes increasingly preoccupied with her own mental state. The play is, perhaps inevitably, drenched in guilt. Laughter may be the best medicine, but deadly viruses don’t have much of a sense of humor.
IF YOU GO:
The Baltimore Waltz
7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays; 2 p.m. Sundays.
SpringHouse Ministry Center
610 W. 28th St., Minneapolis
$18-$30 sliding scale.
For tickets, visit cdtbw.bpt.me or call 1-800-838-3006.
Through June 19