Anna is a single elementary school teacher; the perfect signifier for middle class conservative America. Carl, her brother, has recently been fired from his job at the library for ‘wearing a pink triangle’, a homophobic injustice he reacts beautifully to, by encouraging all the children under his care to make their own pink triangle badges. This badge, worn with an educated, witty charm and alongside a beloved stuffed bunny rabbit, denotes Carl’s sexuality with subtlety and a light touch, despite it being one of the key themes of the play.
Playwright Paula Vogel wrote this modern American classic in response to the death of her brother from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1988. It’s set in late 80’s America, and ostensibly in Europe too, as the pair set off on the last hurrah jaunt they always wished to take before time runs out.
However, in a genius twist on the straightforward story of losing a loved one to what was in the 80s a terrifying and taboo new disease sweeping through the gay community and making bewildering inroads into hetero life as well, the mid-section of Vogel’s play is a fantasy; an ever more strange coping mechanism created by Anna’s reeling mind upon the diagnosis of her beloved sibling. The action simultaneously takes place romping through Europe on a promiscuous and mysterious adventure, and in an austere and unchanging hospital room.
So we discover early on that it is, in fact, Anna who has the terminal disease. One that affects single elementary school teachers predominantly and is contracted through sitting on children’s toilet seats. This wonderfully specific and bizarre condition, so dangerous and ultimately fatal, is a perfect stand-in for the horrifying spectre of AIDS, allowing the audience to laugh freely at the painful ridiculousness of such a diagnosis throughout this sometimes farcical comedy. The laughter, however, gives way to truly touching moments, and satirical sharp edges which show the depth of Vogel’s feelings about the maligning impact of homophobia and AIDS-related discrimination that would have been rife at the time. Anna and Carl set off on their trip with several missions in mind – Anna’s primary care is to “F*ck her brains out” in the time she has left, and Carl is intent on finding a miracle cure for his sister’s horrifying illness. Things get more and more surreal and the audience is slowly but inexorably drawn to the conclusion that these surely must be the imaginings of a grief-stricken mind, the proof of which is delivered with a gut-wrenching emotional blow as the two lead characters perform a sentimental waltz-after-death in the final scene.
Showing at The Factory Performance Space for two nights, The Baltimore Waltz by Blue Heart Theatre marks the start of #ShareTheLove week in Sligo, promoting a yes vote for the forthcoming gay marriage referendum. It’s perhaps telling that although this play premiered in the early 90’s in the US, and has become a highly lauded classic contemporary play, it had never yet before this been staged in Ireland.
Blue Heart Theatre company provide an evocative and emotional production of what is a multi-layered and exquisitely zany “serious comedy”. Symbolism abounds, laughter is contagious, lust is revealed as a force of nature, and several delightful stereotypes of European gigolo are bedded. Niamh Denyer and Mike Kunze deliver strong, warm and engaging performances of the lead roles, though the scenes in which the mysterious and multi-faceted “Third Man”, Brian Higgins appears, whether playing the classic film noir protagonist or one of several other delicious characters, steal the show.
Thankfully, times have changed somewhat since the 1980s and the farcical ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease) which afflicts Anna is something we can now laugh even harder at, with many of the taboos and myths surrounding the real and devastating effects of AIDS and HIV falling away with modern medicine and attitudes. Conversely, however, this still thoroughly relevant play reminds us all that at the end of the day, the discriminations and constructs of our often over-active imaginations all conceal the same core issues in our day to day lives, whatever our gender or sexuality.
Namely: Love, lust, loss and a bunny.