Unchained Malady

Theater has been braving the AIDS pandemic for more than a decade. Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart in 1985 was the first of a subgenre of plays that has evolved beyond commentary on the crisis to a more artful form of entertainment. Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz, which is being presented locally by the fledgling Ensemble Theatre, is among a second generation of AIDS plays that favors humor and entertainment over education.

Vogel's play subverts first-generation AIDS plays by abstracting the epidemic and accommodating it rather than attempting to comprehend and inform about it, as did early AIDS theater. The Baltimore Waltz combines several theatrical styles to tell the story of Vogel's brother, who died from complications of the disease in 1988. Before she knew he was ill, her brother asked Vogel to join him on a trip to Europe, but she begged off. He died soon after, and Vogel wrote Baltimore Waltz as a fantasy trip with her brother that's funny and dark and full of life.

The principal device of the play is that Vogel has swapped places with her brother in this hallucinatory trip abroad. He's healthy, while she's sick; when they travel to Europe, he wants to see the sights while she wants to fuck every man she meets. By making her own character, a young schoolteacher, sick with a make-believe disease that mostly affects young female schoolteachers, Vogel has obscured the usual issues that are coupled with AIDS without abandoning them. Watching a heterosexual woman being manipulated by quack practitioners and discriminated against by federal officials, we get the point that homophobia and intolerance always accompany AIDS, without the gay-activist subplot that's been beaten to death by many AIDS-themed plays. And inherent issues of guilt and innocence leap off the stage in Vogel's wacky fantasy: The illness she has is not contracted through sex or drug use, but from toilet seats, and safe-sex guidelines are supplanted by admonitions to "squat, don't sit."

This loony switcheroo is the most appealing thing about Vogel's writing; otherwise, I find The Baltimore Waltz too precious and really don't like the play much at all, though I've seen some praiseworthy productions of it. Ensemble Theatre's production is among them. It's mostly well-acted and is expertly directed by ASU acting professor David Vining. Vining keeps this one-act jumping with dizzying set and costume changes and amplifies Vogel's declared fear of language by handing every minor character an intractable accent.

All of these secondary characters are played by Mike Prindiville, who is mostly not up to the task of carrying choral support. His portrayal of the Little Dutch Boy at age 50 is amusing, but the rest of his characterizations fall flat. The leads fare better: Kay Kirby is charming and facile as Anna, a girl who just wants to have fun before her time is up. And Tim Hart is generous with the acting skills he's learned on numerous television soap operas. His Carl is a glib, unpretentious pantywaist whose "boys don't play with dolls" speech is both moving and very funny.

Vogel knows that AIDS provides a rich construct for theater, because it relies on easily recognizable boundaries: sick and healthy, guilty and innocent, gay and straight. The Baltimore Waltz blurs the lines between these boundaries and fills gaps with good humor--if not great writing--while still proclaiming a poignant expression of loss.

The Ensemble Theatre's production of The Baltimore Waltz continues through Saturday, December 21, at the Norgetown Building, 75th Street and Culver in Scottsdale.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela