In an era of twerking and grinding, Paula Vogel's aptly named "The Baltimore Waltz," which is receiving a spirited production by Theatre Coup d'Etat in Minneapolis, conjures an older and uniquely more intimate dance. It's one in which a couple must embrace each other, clinging together as they whirl through space in ever widening circles.
Written after the death of Vogel's brother from complications of AIDS in 1988, "The Baltimore Waltz" is an intensely personal meditation on grief told through a complex pastiche of sly irony, bleak pathos and flat-out farce. Today it also serves as a history lesson of sorts, an elegiac reminder of a health crisis that marched implacably forward against a backdrop of secrecy, confusion and dread.
The play revolves around a particularly absurd fantasy, with Käri Nielsen as Anna, a first-grade teacher with a terminal illness — Acquired Toilet Disease. Her brother Carl (Nicholas Kaspari) whisks her off to Europe in search of a rumored cure.
Their tour through France, Amsterdam and Germany unfolds in a dizzying array of styles and genres, as Vogel layers the play with allusions to various works including the British film noir "The Third Man." Indeed, the only other role in the play is called the Third Man. Played by Kip Dooley, this role embodies all the other characters, including a jargon-spewing doctor and an international array of one-night stands.
The action unfolds on a stage dominated by a hospital bed, while cleverly repurposed medical paraphernalia become props to set the various scenes. Thus a first aid kit becomes a camera, plastic cafeteria trays and a crutch hilariously stand in for an airport security gate and an IV stand represents the Eiffel Tower.
The play's journey becomes ever more frenetic as it progresses, but director Lauren Diesch capably manages its disparate threads. Nielsen brings a lusty joie de vivre to the role of Anna and skillfully rides the waves of the work's sudden shifts in tone and style. Kaspari provides a calmer presence, an ironically analytical foil to Anna's messily emotional tenor. Together they create a sweetly idiosyncratic chemistry that plausibly communicates the nuances of a sibling relationship. Dooley successfully fills perhaps the play's most challenging job as he conjures a series of increasingly wacky figures, culminating in a Dr. Strangelove-inspired mad scientist.
This hurly-burly mishmash of comedy and tragedy isn't for everyone, but it's an intriguing work that uniquely captures the flavor of a specific era and the timelessness of grief and loss. Theatre Coup d'Etat is to be commended for giving it another look.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.