November 14, 2016

Dancing with Disease: The Baltimore Waltz at the Schwartz Center

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There’s a man and a woman lying frozen on the floor. Despite looking too old to do so, the man is clutching a stuffed rabbit. I am sitting at one of the six tables lined up on the edge of each side of the stage. The tables, covered in stark white tablecloths, are home to pink napkins, white plates with silver lining and empty wine glasses. Foreboding and original orchestral music by Patrick Braga ’17 is playing in the background, as we wait in near darkness for several minutes unsure of what to expect.

This unpredictability is a mainstay of Aleksej Aarsaether’s ’17 directing.  Aarsaether has been an innovative and highly respected student director throughout his time at Cornell. Though his array of credits is diverse and includes the Fall 2013 10 Minute Play Festival (Blackbox Theatre), The Vagina Monologues (Bailey Hall), Macbeth (Risley Theatre), among others, his work champions comedy, pathos and unconventionality — and The Baltimore Waltz is no different.

Written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel (MFA ’76, PhD ’16), The Baltimore Waltz is at once a whimsical, carefree play steeped in tragedy. It was inspired by the 1980s AIDs crisis that took the life of Vogel’s brother Carl, along with the lives of thousands of gay men across the nation. When Anna (Lisa McCullough ’20) is diagnosed with ATD: Acquired Toilet Disease — a fatal new malady that is sweeping the country — she and her brother Carl (Matthew Hagerty ’18) drop everything to voyage to Europe. Before leaving Baltimore, Carl calls on his college friend, Harry Lime, in search of black market drugs that will cure Anna.

It doesn’t take long before ridiculous antics ensue. In her portrayal of Anna, McCullough is every bit convincing as a woman submerged in self-denial about her illness. Knowing her life is coming to an end, Anna seeks to deflect her disease by sleeping with multiple men in the different countries of Europe. All of these men — from the French waiter to the German virgin to the 50-year-old “Little Dutch Boy” — are played by Bryan Hagelin ’20, a bold actor with an instinct for slapstick comedy. Some of his characters tend to blend together and err on the side of repetitive, but perhaps that’s the point. “Third Man,” as he is listed in the cast list, isn’t supposed to be incredibly nuanced; he’s there for the comic relief and Hagelin more than fulfills that duty.

In one scene, Third Man and Anna are having (loud) sex under a table, while waiters offer audience members pastries, bread and drinks, encouraging them to satiate themselves as they watch the play. The fourth wall is broken yet again when audience members are asked to make props, and when pictures of Cornell are used in a slideshow of Anna and Carl’s trip. The Baltimore Waltz closes the distance between actor and viewer, making it all the more pleasurable to watch. It is an exercise in intimacy and interactive audience participation, inviting the audience to be invested in the world of the play by including them in its dramatic action.

However, the play’s farcical elements are only as successful as its simultaneous gravitas. Carl finds out that Harry has duped him, along with sundry ATD patients. The drugs he has “won’t help”; Harry has created them himself in a shoddy basement and sells them to people who are desperate for a cure. Other glaring reminders that ATD is not a comical hoax, but a devastating disease that kills people, are interspersed throughout the show. “Do squat. Don’t get sick,” is the advice health officials provide their patients because ATD is not a medical priority. Perhaps the most surprising reminder of the terminal illness is when we find out Anna doesn’t even have ATD. Rather, she has developed a metaphorical affliction to avoid coping with Carl’s death from AIDS.

The Baltimore Waltz is a sobering reminder of a crisis that Aarsaether says “has not only slipped through the cracks of American history, but also queer history.” It vacillates between the political and personal, in line with contemporary events. In light of the Pulse shooting that occurred this summer, and the hate crimes targeted against members of the queer community on a daily basis, The Baltimore Waltz — whose proceeds have gone towards raising money for HIV testing at Cornell — culminates in a most necessary work of social justice theater.

Gwen Aviles is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].