Anna (Niamh Denyer) has been recently diagnosed with a horrendous and incurable illness, Acquired Toilet Disease, which she contracted unwittingly doing a simple task that everyone does. In the search for a cure, she and her brother Carl (Mike Kunze) travel to Europe, where Anna goes on a hedonistic voyage doing all the things she never did as an elementary school teacher in the US. On their journey they encounter The Third Man (Brian Higgins), who plays a myriad of roles and is more than just an homage to the film of the same name, with the end point of their journey being Vienna. With farcical comedy throughout, Anna and Carl eventually reach Vienna where their hope lies in dodgy homemade drugs and a bottle of urine. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Baltimore Waltz is ultimately a satire of how the US government (and society in general) initially reacted to the AIDS crisis in the 80s, as well as the judgment and shame laid down towards those living with HIV/AIDS. At the core of the play is Anna and Carl’s relationship (based on Vogel’s real life relationship with her brother who died due to complications of AIDS) which is tender and poignant, mixed with anger at each other due to their undesired circumstances.
The emotional changes from comedy to drama, while representative of real life (especially real life when under pressure), have a jarring effect and happen too frequently, leaving a sense of internal confusion. There are several laugh out loud moments and many giggles to be had but some of the comedy is dated, obvious, and juvenile, as well as being American-centric and therefore lost to a mostly Irish audience. Similarly, there are many themes packed into the 75 minutes running time, such as language, death, hope, shame, and love, which perhaps could have been better dealt with on an individual basis.
The Baltimore Waltz still packs a punch when it comes to the absurd stigma that surrounds those living with HIV; despite medical advances the social aspect of HIV is still very much burdensome and cruel. The message at the heart of The Baltimore Waltz is still relevant today; it’s just that the writing hasn’t stood the test of time. The direction and acting hold this production together and there is a sense of cohesiveness in the cast. This is a good production of a now outdated play but one that is not without charm and is good for a laugh or two. It also serves as a reminder that the battle against HIV has yet to be won.
The Baltimore Waltz by Paula Vogel starring Niamh Denyer, Mike Kunze and Brian Higgins.
23 March – 4 April 2015 at The New Theatre, Dublin.
Presented by Blue Heart Theatre. Directed by Ayrton O’Brien.