The Baltimore Waltz at Gallier Hall’s Ty Tracy Theatre through June 22
I know I saw The Baltimore Waltz when it was done at the CAC in the 1990s. I just can’t remember who directed or acted in it or much else about the production (googling didn’t help). Just that it left me kinda cold.
I don’t think that will happen with Fat Squirrel’s production of Paula Vogel’s dramedy, currently running at the Ty Tracy Theatre in Gallier Hall.
That’s because Director Desirée Burrell has found the proper balance between naturalism and the script’s inherent surrealism while preventing its sentimental underpinnings from ever turning into mere whimsy. And because, as Anna, the play’s seemingly doomed heroine, Elyse McDaniel gives a touching, luminous performance.
Jon Broder and Elyse McDaniel in The Baltimore Waltz
Coming after As Is and The Normal Heart, in his review of the original 1992 off-Broadway production, Frank Rich described The Baltimore Waltz as “a rare AIDS play that rides completely off the rails of documentary reality, trying to rise above and even remake the world in which the disease exists.”
Set up as a series of foreign language lessons, Waltz is Vogel’s love letter to her brother Carl who had died of the disease. Rather than describing his battle, however, Vogel recasts the situation with elementary school teacher Anna coming down with “Acquired Toilet Disease” and her brother Carl taking her to Europe (she’s never been abroad) for all sorts of fun and, perhaps, to obtain a drug that could cure her. (It helps if you know the Orson Welles movie The Third Man otherwise you might get a little lost amidst the cinematic references.)
Wisely, Burrell dusts her production with a somewhat stylized tone that well-matches that of the script’s. She could, however, have brought out more of the play’s contours, perhaps with visuals of some sort to set the various scenes, and amped up the performance level of her cast which doesn’t always fill the theater’s small space. Of course, with as delicate a play as this, too much could be just as bad as not enough.
Certainly, for a first-time director, Burrell acquits herself admirably. An award-winning actress, she could be compared to an accomplished violinist who’s conducting for the first time and is still learning how to call forth all the colors of the orchestra.
McDaniel, however, in an understated but dead-on performance, conveys an affecting delicacy and emotional transparency as Anna, expertly navigating the hairpin turns of various feelings that Vogel demands of her–fear, compassion, lust, confusion, empathy, etc. If not all of Anna’s actions make sense, we can thank Vogel’s dreamscape world for that; McDaniel, however, always allows all of Anna’s choices to seem perfectly logical and inevitable, and by the finale, she is absolutely heartbreaking.
Jon Broder is fine as Carl, a San Francisco librarian, and makes him eminently likable, but he might have benefitted from a more forceful director who could’ve elicited more of the role’s nuances from him. That said, as Rich observed “it is one of the intriguing aspects of The Baltimore Waltz that Carl is not an active character in his own drama; the play really is intended as a living memorial to him, a sister’s valentine to a brother whose private life away from her is represented only by a vague symbol, a child’s stuffed rabbit.”
Michael Stone, playing a variety of secondary characters, needed to project more at the start; it seemed as though his “sound button” was tuned to a different level than his castmates. Once the scene shifts to Europe and Stone gets to inhabit Vogel’s portrait gallery of over-the-top zanies, he does well.
The Baltimore Waltz is a very humane play, a quality which would come through in Vogel’s subsequent plays. Fat Squirrel’s lovely production of it reminds us of the power of art to transform tragedy into a potent tribute that can, especially during Pride Month, affect all of us.
[For more info and tickets, go to https://fatsquirrelnola.square.site/product/the-baltimore-waltz/18?cs=true&cst=custom]
Twelfth Night at Tulane’s Lupin Theater through June 24
When The NOLA Project presented Twelfth Night at NOMA in 2014, I wrote of Keith Claverie’s performance as Malvolio, “deliciously smug and appearing like a constipated owl, he seems trapped by his own officiousness until the possibility of Olivia’s affections unleashes his amorous desires to hilarious effect. Scowling at those around him, Claverie makes Malvolio a fool you love to laugh at.”
The same can be said of his Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the current production of this popular comedy by the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane (NOSF).
Aguecheek is, of course, one of the Bard’s great comic creations. Claverie may inflate his lines to the bursting point, but he always pays scrupulous attention to the text, grounding his interpretation in the words and mining them for all they’re worth. He thus gives us a self-important buffoon, not wise but not stupid either, who’s used to getting his way by tossing his money around. A caricature? Perhaps, but through Claverie’s artistry of keeping things just within the realm of reality, this Aguecheek becomes one of those outsized people about whom you’d say “If you saw him in a movie, you’d never believe it.”
Energizing the stage of the black-box Lupin Theater every time he comes on, one only wonders if Claverie could do a one-man version of Twelfth Night, playing all the roles.
Other than Claverie, however, this is a fairly standard issue Twelfth Night. Inspired by his honeymoon, Director AJ Allegra has set the play in a town on the Italian Rivera. There’s lotsa business with pushcarts and shopkeepers; Italian accents come and go. As one would expect from Allegra, it’s all intelligently done and nicely staged (especially the letter scene with doors and shutters opening and closing in perfect synchronization) but, as with most NOSF shows, there’s nothing new at all in the interpretation.
As Sir Toby Belch and Maria, Aguecheek’s partners-in-crime, Mike Harkins and Natalie Boyd offer somewhat subdued but still very, very good characterizations of these rapscallions; there’s an especially subtle, and lovely, mischievousness to Boyd’s Maria.
Natalie Boyd, Mike Harkins and Noah Hazzard in Twelfth Night
Payj Ruffins gives us a Viola, cast ashore in the strange land of Illyria who dons male drag as protection (because, alas, single young maidens gotta beware), who is at times commanding, at times thoughtful; you get the sense that this Viola must think, and rightly so, that she’s a bit wiser than the folks she finds herself surrounded by. Very good though she is and utterly convincing as a male, I suspect Ruffins might have an even better Viola inside her were she to be in another production.
Benjamin Dougherty might be the most decent Orsino I’ve ever seen but also the most defanged; unlike, say, Much Ado About Nothing where Shakespeare makes clear the attraction between Beatrice and Benedict, I’ve never quite understood Orsino’s immediate captivation by Viola when she finally reveals herself; that there’s little chemistry between Dougherty and Ruffins makes it even more incomprehensible.
As that misguided peacock Malvolio, Graham Burk doesn’t erase memories of Claverie’s take on him (after all, he doesn’t have the grand staircase of NOMA’s entrance hall to work on), but he delivers a perfectly acceptable portrait of an egotist who gets his comeuppance. Defined as “Olivia’s steward”, here Malvolio seems to be a cleric of some sort. Whatever comment Allegra is trying to make by this (presumably about the hypocrisy of religion) never really lands as (I would think) a member of the Catholic church (after all, it’s Italy), would not be allowed to openly express any feelings of romantic love, but, hey, what does this atheist know?
Rich Dally III (Feste), Detalion Dixon (Sebastian), Noah Hazzard (Fabian), and Robert Mitchell (Antonio) are all fine in smaller roles, though Dally has a tendency to sing flat in some of his vocal numbers.
I take exception only with the Countess Olivia of Brittany N. Williams who just directed The NOLA Project’s brilliant Midsummer Night’s Dream. Williams’ Olivia seems like a perfectly nice lady but she lacks the nobility that separates her from the other characters. As she’s still mourning the recent death of her brother, this Olivia melts too quickly at the sight of Cesario, depriving the audience of the pleasure of seeing the Countess’ gradual transformation.
So if you want to enjoy Twelfth Night, by all means head to Tulane. But…
What You Will, the play’s alternate title, perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays (As You Like It is a close second) features the confusion that follows from cross-dressing with Olivia in love with Cesario/Viola and Viola in love with Orsino who treats Cesario like a li’l bro in Dougherty’s hands-on (but not with any hint of eroticism or even mere amorousness) performance.
In these days when gender fluidity and non-binariness occupy headlines, we deserve a more complex interpretation of Shakespeare rather than the gob-smackingly straight version that we’re getting at Tulane. I, for one, would love to see how Olivia reacts when she realizes she’s been having the hots for another woman. And shouldn’t there be more, well, something between Orsino and Cesario, however cringy/creepy it might be in terms of power dynamics, in order to justify their eventual seemingly ecstatic union after a mere three days?
And so, while this Twelfth Night is among the NOSF’s better productions, it missed an opportunity, especially during Pride month, to embrace a more imaginative, original and challenging interpretation. For that, it didn’t achieve greatness nor was greatness thrust upon it.
[For tickets and more info, including about the NOSF’s upcoming production of Romeo & Juliet (July 14-30), go to https://neworleansshakespeare.org/]
As always, things tend to slow down on the boards at this time of year but, for you culture vultures, as well as all the other colorful birds of the rainbow, the following will be worth checking out.
Head up to Mandeville to see those two lovable rapscallions, down-on-his-luck Broadway producer Max Bialystock and his mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom, who come up with a scheme to produce the most notorious flop in history, thereby bilking their backers (all “little old ladies”) out of millions of dollars. Only one thing goes awry: the show is a smash hit!
30 by Ninety Theatre presents Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-winning musical comedy The Producers directed by Emily Carmadelle through July 2. More info and tickets at https://30byninety.com/shows/the-producers/
Salvage Art Productions brings the premiere of Miss Rose, a fantasy cabaret play that tracks the relationship between Rose Williams and her brother Tennessee, to the Marigny Opera House (June 17-July 2). From the visiting lounge of her care facility, she promises to delight her audience…if they show. Written by Ken Prestininzi & Christopher Winslow, Miss Rose stars Rebecca Gibel as Rose Williams and Leicester Landon as Tennessee. Tickets and more info at https://marignyoperahouse.org/upcoming-events/miss-rose-a-cabaret-play-salvage-art-productions/
On June 23, 24 and 25 at NOMA’s Lapis Center, Mélange Dance Company will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the deadliest fire in New Orleans history, when an arsonist set fire to The UpStairs Lounge, a popular French Quarter bar and safe haven for the LGBT+ community. Thirty two lives were lost and deserve to be remembered. Through dance, film, spoken word, and elements of live music, stories of love and loss will unfold, bringing to life this quirky three room bar with red flocked wallpaper that held church services, presented charitable theatrical productions, and united its community in song. More info and tickets at https://www.melangedanceofnola.com/upstairs-lounge-1
And last but not least, free your mind this summer at the world’s largest drag production. On July 1, RuPaul’s Drag Race Werq The World Tour 2023 comes to The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts for one show only. Asia O’Hara, Bosco, DeJa Skye, Jujubee, Lady Camden, Laganja, Vanessa Vanjie and select finalists from Season 15 will be unknowingly trapped in the Netwerq. Apparently, perception is not reality. Tickets and more info at https://www.mahaliajacksontheater.com/events/rupauls-drag-race/
RuPaul’s Drag Race Werq The World Tour 2023