THEATER | Swandive plays a resonant “Baltimore Waltz”

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Back in 1993, in a theater space that is no more (the Loring Playhouse) courtesy of a theater company that is no more (Eye of the Storm), I was treated to what might actually have been the first production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz to hit Minneapolis. In an unexpected continuation of a theme, I believe the friend I saw it with, and one of the actors in the cast, are also no more. So revisiting The Baltimore Waltz again 17 years later was a lot like visiting an old friend. It was also a reminder of the way passing time can gobble things up, and how the new takes root even in the loss of the old.


It was nice to see that Vogel’s whimsical comedy holds up beautifully over time. The set-up is deceptively simple.  Anna (Meg DiSciorio), a young single schoolteacher, has contracted ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), probably from her students and the classroom toilet (“Five year olds can be deadly”). Her gay brother Carl (James Levkin) spirits her off on a whirlwind tour of Europe, which is also a search for a cure to Anna’s ATD. While Carl moves ever closer to a rendezvous with the mysterious Third Man (Damon Runnals), and an ominous exchange of seemingly innocent stuffed animal bunnies, Anna throws propriety to the winds and bedhops her way from country to country to have a little fun before ATD catches up with her. (All of Anna’s multi-accented paramours are also played by Runnals.) Of course, none of that is what’s really going on here, but it isn’t until the play’s final moments that actual reality asserts itself, and everything takes on its true meaning.





the baltimore waltz, presented through june 12 at the cedar riverside people’s center. for tickets ($0-$15) and information, see swandivetheatre.org.

Vogel being the wizard with language she is, the clues are buried right from the opening moments, as Anna struggles to learn key phrases in foreign languages to help her on her travels.


“Please help me.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”


Conjugations are threaded throughout the narrative—to leave, to abandon, to forsake. And profound bonds lurk underneath the silliest of phrases, “You’re the only one I trust to hold my rabbit.”


Though the play was originally a response to AIDS, its lampooning of the medical profession along with the subversively subtle rallying cry for gay visibility still resonate today. Ours is still a world where science is constantly struggling to make sense of technology which runs ahead of our ability to manage it, and civil rights of different groups of people regularly come up for a vote.  But this isn’t a hamhanded polemic. The politics are always tucked inside laughter, rather than speeches. It’s comedy you don’t have to turn off your brain to enjoy, which is enormously refreshing.


Ursual Bowden’s set design is simple but brilliant, using every inch of the space at the Cedar Riverside People’s Center third floor theater. Enormous bolts of feathery white fabric hang from the rafters and are pulled across the front of the stage, providing surfaces for projection and sheets for bedding and serving numerous other functions. The curved and exploded surface painting of hospital tiles on the floor and back wall is a motif continued in the multiple wooden cubes which are shuffled and stacked into a variety of configurations to create everything needed for the travels of Anna and Carl.


Lisa Conley’s countless costumes for the multiple characters of this world are easily thrown on and tossed off in order to keep the comedy’s breakneck pace from lagging. Lindsay Woolward’s sound design is a constant presence throughout, but always a welcome one. It opens up the world of the play and never gets in the way of the story or devolves into noise. Every sound here has its purpose. Jen DeGolier’s varied lighting design is full of stark contrasts that fit the rapid shifts of location and mood well. The props (by Sarah Salisbury) are many, but necessary, and never become clutter or obstructions to the play’s forward movement. The use of projections at well-chosen moments adds a lot to the whimsy (and menace) of the whole affair, making the world see both larger, and more grounded. (Plus, the homage to the film The Third Man is great stuff.) It’s tricky to design a play that’s real and not real at the same time, but the Swandive team all pulls it off nicely.


The performances of all three actors are good. (A special nod to director Runnals who unexpectedly had to step in and take on the multiple roles of The Third Man—what is it with actors literally breaking legs this year?) If the play didn’t pack the full emotional wallop I expected it to at the end, I think it has less to do with the performers than perhaps that I already knew what was coming, having seen it before—or that I arrived in the theater with a cloud of melancholy already in place over my head. Maybe, too, Vogel’s script is so good at drawing attention to and having fun with the artifice of theater and the structure of comedy that an audience member has a harder time losing himself or herself in any deeper well of emotion. No matter. The Baltimore Waltz is still funny and smart after all these years. The actors and the audience get a workout barreling through this amusing journey with Anna and Carl. And don’t forget to read the letter Paula Vogel’s brother sent her. (The theater provides you with a copy in the medical file you are presented when you arrive.) Like the play, it’s funny and heartbreaking and still has the power to grab you a couple of decades down the line.


The program also had this tucked inside it…


Swandive Theatre’s Vision
We believe in the power of stories.
We believe in the magic of the everyday.
We believe in community.
We believe the theater is a place where stories, magic and community come together.
We believe that these things are missing in many people’s lives.
We believe they want them back.


To which I say, “Amen.”


This is my first encounter with a Swandive show—but after last night, I dare say it’s only the first of many to come. My review: Highly recommended.

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