I wanted to like this play. I have a love of the playwright, Paula Vogel, since before college. The play is part of the LGBTQ theatrical canon and provides magical, but heartfelt, portrayal of living and suffering from HIV and AIDS. Yes, the play is topical (if slightly dated with the advent of new medicine and increased awareness of preventive measures and testing). It’s certainly supposed to be moving (Vogel wrote the play almost as a eulogy for her brother, who died of AIDs in the late 1980s). The director, Kamela Dolinova, has a deep connection with the play as highlighted in her Director’s Note. I would even say that she has a vision or concept for the production, as spectacularly articulated in the “beautiful, vertiginous, frightening in the visceral, unformed way that only dreams can be” as a waltz. Unfortunately, that’s where (most of) my praise stops.
Theatre@First has been hit-or-miss (Equus: hit, Pride and Prejudice: miss), and yet I keep coming back for more because they try challenging work and commit to the work with such conviction and purpose that I can’t help but feel proud of them. However, something was horribly miscast or misdirected or miss-marked in this production of Baltimore Waltz. Brigid A. Battell who plays Anna (arguably our Paula Vogel-character) brings some of the same stuffiness from Pride and Prejudice to this unfortunate character. Battell’s portrayal borders on the campy and pompous, never a comfortable mix. While she has some hilarious moments, I never feel any of the beautiful moments with her. Battell feels like a waltz partner who is spinning, led by her partner and the music but never with any life or purpose of her own. It’s unfortunate because Battell showed some promise with the difficult role of Elizabeth Bennett.
Even more disappointing, however, is John Olson, who plays Anna’s brother Carl (who, you guessed it, is paralleled after Vogel’s brother). Olson seems like a fine actor, but he feels very wrong in this role. Moments of sexual exploration come off as predatory, moments of comedy come off as flippant, and moments of tenderness come off as stuttering. Maybe it was the creepy mustache (is that supposed to be some reminder of awful fashion in the late 1980s?), maybe he was a little too old for the role (making every sexual encounter and joke uncomfortable, at best). Maybe the role was just outside of his current range and, like Battell, he worked to keep up with the unforgiving tempo of the play. However, Olson has the more arduous task; like the male dance partner, he led this show in many respects. His humor drives the play and he sets up many of the hilarious moments for Battell to react with equal hilarity.
The Third Man is a difficult role to play well; he requires multiple costume and character shifts at (literally) the drop of a hat. James Scheffler manages in some respect. Out of the three leads, he surprises by offering the best pacing to keep up with the play’s accelerating tempo. However, he also misses something in some of the characters. Maybe it’s because the whole play felt too much like a dream and each character felt disingenuous. With strong moments of character, the play would lag, however, with campiness and comedy borne not out of sincerity, but out of tongue-in-cheek mockery. The actors made the characters seem aware of their own humorous situations instead of letting the audience discover the humor in its absurdity. The actors seemed to have already figured out where they stress humor and downplay sincerity or the drama. This pointed awareness, however, left the audience cheated of the joy of humor, the moment of realization. You see, I wanted to enjoy this play and its magical realism, but I felt like too much knowledge was imparted, almost as if the actors needed to remind us that this wasn’t real. In a play that borders fantasy and reality like the tilting and turning of a waltz, the audience needs to feel like every moment is real, forcing them to question (along with the characters) whether what they are observing is real or not.
While I am critical of this production and its misadventures, I truly believe that Theatre@First is better than the product of this show. With a dedicated team and community, I know they are capable of better work and I look forward to their upcoming season. This fall, they will put on their second annual outdoor Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.