Paula Vogel’s daffy play The Baltimore Waltz takes you around the world in ninety minutes, as Anna (Mollie O. Remillard) and her brother Carl (Michael Trainor) search for a cure for her fatal malady, Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD). The arc of the play is one of surprises, delivered by a mysterious third man (Jack Sleigh) and a stuffed rabbit. The entire play is downright peculiar, it just doesn’t make sense. At first.
You sit transfixed for an hour and half, laughing hysterically at the adventures of Anna and her brother and end up reaching for a hankie? Anna the schoolteacher suddenly discovers her inner lust? And she ends up bedding every bellhop and waiter from Paris to Vienna? But they are all the same man, donning a variety of caps, wigs and assorted other theatrical accoutrements. Wow. Crazy.
And then there is the inexplicable rabbit. It is introduced early on, before they set off on a European adventure.
(Carl grabs a stuffed rabbit and thrusts it in Anna’s suitcase.)
Anna: What are you doing?
Carl: Can’t leave bunny behind.
Anna: What is a grown man like you doing with a stuffed rabbit?
Carl: I can’t sleep without bunny.
Anna: I didn’t know you slept with…stuffed animals.
Carl: There’s a lot you don’t know about me.
End of scene six.
How can an audience sit through a madcap play filled with impossible situations and improbable turns and end up the evening looking for the aforementioned kleenex to dab away the tears? Ah, it’s really simple. Paula Vogel has a message.
While Michael Trainor plays the smart-quipping Carl very subtly and deftly, none of us know much about him, or what is going on until we are let in on the secret.
He has AIDS and he is dying. We enter a sort of dream-nightmare world in which Anna tries to reconcile the loss of her brother with the sibling love that she shares with him.
While the key roles are reversed, the conclusion is inevitable. The play was written in the early 80’s when AIDS was a death sentence, and those inflicted with it were stigmatized.
Director Wendy Walraven had unknowingly witnessed the ravages of this disease at age 11 when a family friend, Joey, died. Her only knowledge of him was during the last weeks in the hospital. It is seared into her memory, and she brings the same dedication to the play as the writer, Paula Vogel who wrote it as a memorial to her brother – they had always planned a trip to Europe, but his sickness and death intervened.
As it turns out, Mollie O. Remillard who plays Anna, has done this role before in a Bennington College production. She has her part down pat. At times her role calls for slapstick as she mimes various conjugal positions through the use of light and shadow. It also has shock as when she meets a Viennese doctor who is obsessed with urine. The joy of discovering real French cafe food when she had led a life of cheese and bologna sandwiches as a schoolteacher enables us to share the joy of discovery with her, as we do when she successfully finds momentary love in Monmorte.
Michael Trainor is one of North Adams most seasoned and successful actors, and he resists the temptation to overplay the campy aspects of Carl, delivering a naturalistic version of his character that you can’t help but wish was your best friend, too. In the play you feel the closeness of the brother and sister, except when their roles are reversed and she is on the prowl, and he waits back in the hotel room. She is neglecting him in order to indulge her last lustful urges.
As the Third Man, Jack Sleigh shows great promise as an actor, though his cameos of the various waiters, doctors, lovers and others are a little too similar. Of course there are the costume changes – lots of them, often only seconds apart – to help the audience keep it all straight. He is the burlesque element in the play, and perhaps it was his English accent that made his French, German and American accents all sound similar. In time he may develop deeper vocal modulation and pacing techniques to differentiate his one dozen or more characters.
Then there is the matter of the metaphor – the rabbits in the play. Back when the play was written bunnies and The Playboy Club were a fading phenomenon, and rabbits were simply a stand-in for sex. In the 80’s audiences were far less likely to accept direct talk of gay sex on stage, and today, in community theatre productions a certain amount of discretion is often part of the creative process.
Vogel calls for two identical bunnies in her play, and ours were somewhat different, but no matter. Floppy ears and big bunny feet are not the issue. What they represent, as suggested in the play quote above, is a symbol of the secret life that Carl never reveals to Anna. His own pursuit of carnal pleasures, and the specifics of his life with gay friends and lovers. We get a hint of it at the end when he suggests two ways of being buried: in drag in a casket, or bottoms up.
All through Europe Carl hangs on to his rabbit and we see other men with their own rabbits lurking in dark corners and in the shadows. When they happen to confront Carl, they struggle over possession of his rabbit. After an encounter he licks its long ears. That is the metaphor, sort of. I don’t think it made the transition very well.
The other problem with the rabbit is that Carl insists that Anna hold it as they go through customs. But here the logic breaks down, unless Carl is simply using anna as a way to pass as straight.
The play is ultimately a fantasy, a dreamed version of what really went on. It doesn’t have to make sense any more than our own dreams do. There are symbols that make sense and those that don’t. Halfway through the play it turns out that the two never left Baltimore, that the slide show does not match the claimed reality.
The play uses a number of drawings by North Adams artist-cartoonist Howard Cruise and some of them are brilliant. His mock pamphlet on ATD in which there is an illustration of “Squat, don’t sit” is the height of wit.
The set is simple, and segmented into three sections, divided by curtains. Furniture rolls on casters, and the props are few but well chosen. The lighting is exceptional, considering the limited number of instruments they have to work with. And I suspect they have a new lighting board since the transitions were more seamless than the last time I saw a play there. The sound effects of phones ringing, etc. were uneven.
Of course when we come to the end of the play, reality sets in, the truth is revealed, and it is hanky time. As the play closes, we join Anna and Carl in The Baltimore Waltz, and thank them for both a wonderful evening of theatre, and their reminder that the fight to find a cure is far from over.
I saw this performance on Sunday afternoon, the day Main Street Stage was celebrating its tenth anniversary in North Adams. The community based organization has a lot of tenacity, and keeps getting better and better.
Main Street Stage presents The Baltimore Waltz by Paula Vogel, Directed by Wendy Walraven, Set Design Juliana Haubrich, Lighting Design Julie Seitel, Stage Manager Sarah Rae Brown. Cast: Anna – Mollie O. Remillard, Carl – Michael Trainor, The Third Man – Jack Sleigh. At Main Street Stage, 57 Main Street, North Adams, MA June 18-26. About ninety minutes without intermission. Information 413-663-3240 or www.mainstreetstage.org