Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
3 out of 4
I never really thought about the difference between understanding a play’s style and being able to execute that style. In theory, if you understand the style, you should understand the steps necessary to accomplish that style. Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz accomplished something unique. They understood the style so well that it actually began to backfire on them. Not to the complete detriment of the production, mind you, but they stuck so true to the style of the play as written that it short changed them on the things they were doing well.
Vogel’s play about a suddenly diagnosed with a fatal disease school teacher’s romp around Europe is a wild ride. It pops in and out of direct address at a moment’s notice and bounces around from raunchy comedy to self-discovery journey, dips a toe in some shady dealings, and tops it all off with a hint of absurdity to keep the audience a little bit off. Director Ed Rutherford clearly understood exactly what each of those styles meant and how to get each to play well with his actors. The stumbling block then became the speed at which the script demanded change.
Quick shifts out of scenes left them feeling unfinished and sloppy. Rather than feeling like the production jumpstarted the audience into the next moment of the play, instead it felt like being ripped from the previous one. Of course, once in the new scene, actors Jenna Schoppe, Paul Michael Thomson, and Justin Harner manage to make amends with their wonderful performances. Justin Harner as The Third Man (here used to describe the fact that he plays an assortment of characters throughout), steals the show. Every character is hilarious and distinct. The Third Man is one of those showcase roles for a talented performer and Harner knocks it out of the park. Not to be outdone, Schoppe (who also choreographed the moments of dance in the play) is the embodiment of a teacher on a bender—overflowing amounts of empathy cut with a wild side waiting to get cut free.
The biggest issue was the blocking. The Frontier is a tough space to block in with audience on two sides of the square playing space and a pole smack in the middle of the corner between those sides. The blocking was a bit one note. Small set pieces came in and out of the playing space (draped with white curtains as a backdrop), but there still wasn’t much variety. It seems that Jeremy Hollis’ set design sacrificed levels for the sake of a look that perfectly underscores a brutal twist of an ending by Vogel. It’s hard to fault that, but it did hurt Rutherford’s blocking. One of the awkward moments had Thomson and Harner walking in circles to the Mission Impossible theme during a chase/espionage moment. The feel was right, but it lacked entertainment value because, well, they were just walking in circles. The other blocking issue that really stuck out was the reveal at the end of the play. The doctor is talking to Anna (Schoppe), but Schoppe is, for whatever reason, downstage right by the pole. The play is about her, but at that moment the audience misses her reaction. It’s a brutal slipup during an otherwise wonderful part of the play.
This is nitpicking. Brown Paper Box Co. puts on a solid production of Vogel’s play. The ending reveal is a bit muddy and they get tripped up by the pacing, but these actors are what are (and should be) focused on. Not every joke lands, but it manages to still be cute and finds some laughs. They got the style and they have the actors to make the style work. But some executional flaws keep this production from being truly special.
The Baltimore Waltz by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel runs through February 19, 2017 at The Frontier in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood (1106 W. Thorndale Avenue). Ticket sales and more information can be found at www.BrownPaperBox.org. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.