‘Baltimore Waltz’ Tells Personal Story of Loss Through the Surreal


The way we deal with the death of a loved one makes for an incredibly personal narrative. After the passing of her  beloved brother Carl, playwright Paula Vogel found her own unique way to let the world know how dear he was to her, by writing a loving tribute and political statement through a play titled “The Baltimore Waltz.”

This past weekend, Seeler Studio Theatre was transformed into the thrilling set of “The Baltimore Waltz” for the first of two Spring term faculty-directed shows. Directed by Associate Professor of Theater Cláudio Medeiros ’90, the 90-minute production ran evening performances on April 4 through 6 and one matinee on April 5. 

Originally written as Vogel’s response to the 1988 death of her brother Carl, who died from complications due to AIDS, the play takes place in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where Carl (Alexis de la Rosa ’19) has a terminal illness, and Anna (Madeleine Russell ’19) imagines a trip the two never took. This fantasy of Anna’s takes the audience with her and Carl on a quest for a cure — but instead of her brother being the one ill, it is Anna.  In her fantasy, she suffers from the fictional and terminal ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), which she is said to have contracted by using the bathrooms at the elementary school she teaches at. 

On this quest, Anna is driven by the hedonistic pleasures of museums, luxurious brunches and casual sex with as many men as possible. Assisting the pair on their journey is the mysterious Third Man (Kevin Collins ’20 and Ryan Kirby ’22) who takes up many roles in the play, from a lust-driven waiter in Paris, to a mad Viennese doctor who swears to cure ATD by having his patients drink urine. 

Madeleine Russell and Alexis de la Rosa (both ’19) portrayed siblings Anna and Carl on an emotional (and imagined) escapade through Europe.

The play explores how the pair’s European idyll is broken by Carl’s death and the tragic revelation that the entire play was simply Anna’s valiant fantasy to keep alive her brother’s spirit, when she could not save his life. Their final dance, the Baltimore waltz, was danced under a disco ball, a true symbol of the times. 

The production’s choice of music sets the play in a particular space in time. From ABBA to Dutch and German tunes, the songs evoke the experience of the siblings’ lives in the ’80s and their romp through Europe.

Forty years later, the themes in the play remain relevant. “I was surprised to learn about how little people on the campus knew about the AIDS crisis and the scale of the Act Up movement,” Masha Makutonina ’21, who stage managed the play, said. “This play sheds light on how important it is to not only realize the tragedies of the past, but also give a voice to communities that are deeply hurt and are continued to be targeted even today.” 

“The tragedy of losing someone close to you is a theme that is very universal,” Makutonina added. 

Although there were only four actors on stage, this production had a large team behind it. In addition to Russell, de la Rosa, Collins and Kirby, the production team was comprised of director Medeiros, lighting designer Stephen Chen ’19.5, stage manager Masha Makutonina ’21 and assistant stage manager James Peacock ’21 and dramaturg Travis Sanderson ’19. 

Because the production was faculty directed, it was able to realize the “wildest of ideas,” said Makutonina. Sanderson presented the cast and crew with research background on the AIDS epidemic through findings and the Act Up documentary, and the production team chose their props, costumes and lighting design based on references of the book from the film noir, “Third Man.” 

“Even the smallest details, such as the hats worn by the Third Man, and the pillows on set, had to be exactly right,” Makutonina said. 

Recalling the moments spent in the rehearsal room with his crew, Director Medeiros said that the play has given him two very special gifts: “a destination for my affections and the realization that I must be an alchemist of my own losses.”