Paula Vogel 1951-
(Full name Paula Anne Vogel) American playwright.
The following entry presents information on Vogel's plays through 2001.
Vogel is recognized as an important American playwright. Her work explores such controversial topics as domestic abuse, homosexuality, gender roles and stereotyping, pedophilia, pornography, and AIDS. Reviewers have commended her humor, compassion, and creative approach to sensitive issues, and she has received several prestigious awards and grants for her work.
Vogel was born November 16, 1951, in Washington, DC. She received her B.A. at the Catholic University of America in 1974 and her A.B.D. from Cornell University in 1977. Her first play, Meg, was produced in Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center in 1977. In 1979 she was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts; she subsequently taught at the American Place Theatre and Cornell University. Since 1985 she has been the head of the M.F.A. writing program at Brown University. In 1992 her most frequently produced work, The Baltimore Waltz, was staged and garnered much critical attention. Since then it has been produced in more than sixty regional theaters in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and England. She was awarded a Guggenheim Award in 1995. Vogel has received several grants and awards for her work, including a Bunting Fellowship, a McKnight Fellowship at the Playwright's Center, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center.
Considered her best-known work, The Baltimore Waltz is Vogel's surreal tribute to her brother, who died of AIDS in 1988. Described as a second-generation AIDS play because of its metaphorical treatment of the disease, The Baltimore Waltz centers on Anna, a young teacher who has been diagnosed with the fatal Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD), and Carl, her homosexual brother. The siblings travel to Europe where Anna, in a desperate attempt to live out her fantasies, engages in numerous sexual encounters, while Carl searches for a cure for ATD. Anna and Carl meet black marketers and medical charlatans who claim to have found a remedy. As the play progresses, however, it is revealed that the action is really set in a Baltimore hospital room where Carl is dying of AIDS and that the characters' experiences in Europe are actually products of Anna's imagination. In Hot ‘n’ Throbbing (1990), Vogel explores issues of domestic abuse and pornography through the character of Charlene. Brutalized by her estranged husband, Clyde, Charlene works as a scriptwriter for Gyno Productions, which specializes in “women's erotica,” in order to support her two children, Leslie Ann and Calvin. When Clyde breaks into her apartment, violating a restraining order against him, Charlene shoots him—only to nurse him back to health. The Mineola Twins (1997) chronicles the lives of identical twins, Myrna and Myra, who grow up during the 1950s in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. Although twins, the two women are very different; they grow up to have radically different lifestyles and outlooks on life. How I Learned to Drive (1997) garnered much attention for its portrayal of a young woman looking back on her sexual relationship with her uncle in suburban Maryland.
Critical reaction to Vogel's work has been mixed. Most commentators praise her unflinching and compassionate treatment of such controversial issues as AIDS, domestic abuse, pedophilia, and homosexuality. They note that she often rebels against theatrical and social assumptions and stereotypes, providing a new and illuminating perspective for the theatergoer: for example, in Desdemona (1980) the title character is a conniving prostitute, not the innocent girl that Shakespeare envisioned. Moreover, the critics commend Vogel's imagination and biting humor. Yet other reviewers assert that by using comedy and metaphors to explore these topics, Vogel diminishes the seriousness of drama's emotional impact. Commentators have examined the sources for and influences on Vogel's work, particularly the relationship of her Desdemona and Shakespeare's Othello. Critics also have provided feminist interpretations of her dramas.
Apple-Brown Betty 1979
Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief 1980
Bertha in Blue 1981
The Oldest Profession 1981
The Last Pat Epstein Show before the Reruns 1982
And Baby Makes Seven 1986
Hot ‘n’ Throbbing 1990
The Baltimore Waltz 1992
The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays 1996
How I Learned to Drive 1997
The Mineola Twins 1997
The Mammary Plays 1997
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Criticism: General Commentary
SOURCE: Savran, David. “Loose Screws.” In The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays, by Paula Vogel, pp. ix-xv. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1996.
[In the following essay, Savran provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Vogel's work.]
Shortly after I met Paula Vogel—twenty years ago in a seminar room at Cornell University—she told me a story I have never forgotten. Although I couldn't know it at the time, it proved to be the best possible introduction to the extraordinary plays that she would go on to write. The story involves Paula, her mother Phyllis and her older brother, Carl, and takes place somewhere in the suburban sprawl between Baltimore and Washington.
When Paula was thirteen years old, her mother, recently divorced and with a reputation for being something of a trouble-maker, complained to the Board of Health about the trash collection—or lack of it—in their apartment complex. The Board investigated and, sure enough, conditions were unsanitary and the landlord was charged. As might be expected, the Vogels were promptly delivered an eviction notice, but rather than contest it, they found another apartment. The night they moved into their new lodging, however, Phyllis bundled the children into the car and drove back to their old flat. Once in the empty rooms, Phyllis pulled three screwdrivers out of her purse and instructed the two children to unscrew...
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SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “A Double Dose of Sexual Politics.” San Francisco Chronicle (17 October 2000): B2.
[In the following excerpted positive assessment of Desdemona, Winn praises Vogel's canny revision of the character of Desdemona.]
A double bill of Dutchman and Desdemona at the Phoenix Theatre packs an invigorating night of sexual politics into one of the city's smallest theaters. The Bare Bones Theatre pairing of the 1964 subway car classic by Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and Paula Vogel's 1993 backroom slant on Othello is a canny one. Here, in their distant arenas, are two similar dances along the precipice. Both plays confront transgression against the norm and the violence lurking behind the facade. …
A spotlit handkerchief suspended overhead at the start of Desdemona signals Vogel's faithfulness to Shakespeare. True to the original, this is a story of sexual jealousy, intrigue and murder. By setting the action in a women-only laundry room, however, Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, Hot ‘n’ Throbbing) is free to give Othello a wild back story. Desdemona (Lauren Grace) is a blithe blond sexpot who likes to be paddled and play at prostitution. Her servant and Iago's wife, Emilia (Ellen Scarpaci), is an unhappily married scold. The courtesan Bianca (a buoyant Gwen Lindsay) is a businesswoman of the streets....
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SOURCE: Dolan, Jill. “Paula Vogel's Desdemona (A Play about a Handkerchief).” In Amazon All Stars: 13 Lesbian Plays, edited by Rosemary Keefe Curb, pp. 437-40. New York: Applause, 1996.
[In the following essay, Dolan contrasts Shakespeare's Othello and Vogel's Desdemona.]
Desdemona (A Play about a Handkerchief) continues in playwright Paula Vogel's tradition of resisting theatrical and social pieties. She turns conventions upside down and on their heads to see what falls out of their pockets, pushing them aside, offstage, before she'll ever allow them to resume what others have considered their “rightful” place in an ideological or literary hierarchy. There's always something askew in a Vogel play, something deliciously not quite right, which requires a spectator or reader to change her perspective, to give up any assumption of comfortable viewing or reading ground, and to go along for a refreshing change of performance pace, style, and scenery.
For example, Baltimore Waltz (1992), Vogel's most frequently produced play, both addresses and skirts commonly held assumptions about emotional and social responses to AIDS by writing a fantasy travelogue in which the heroine, suffering from the dreadful ATDS (Acquired Toilet-Seat Disease Syndrome), tours Europe with her brother, indulging in non-stop, flamboyant promiscuity. Their roles finally reverse, and...
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SOURCE: Friedman, Sharon. “Revisioning the Woman's Part: Paula Vogel's Desdemona.” NTQ 15, no. 58 (May 1999): 131-41.
[In the following essay, Friedman contends that Vogel's Desdemona signals a significant shift in feminist critical perspective in drama.]
In his introduction to Othello, Alvin Kernan asserts that Shakespeare's vision of human nature dramatizes ‘ancient terrors and primal drives—fear of the unknown, pride, greed, lust, underlying smooth, civilized surfaces’, and that there is a marked ‘contrast between surface manner and inner nature. … In Desdemona alone do the heart and the hand go together: she is what she seems to be.’1
This characterization is reversed in Paula Vogel's revision of Othello as Desdemona.2 In this play, we have a Desdemona who is not what she seems, ‘of spirit so still and quiet’. Rather, she is Othello's worst nightmare, the transformation of Iago's pretence into reality. Though still naive, Desdemona is no longer the innocent—unselfish in her love, forgiving of all transgressions against her. She is sexually adventurous as she works for Cassio's harlot Bianca in her brothel, seemingly voracious in her appetites, manipulative of anyone who can feed them, and anything but loyal in her relationships with women or men.
Questions abound. Why has Paula Vogel created a...
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SOURCE: Novy, Marianne. “Saving Desdemona and/or Ourselves: Plays by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Paula Vogel.” In Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women's Re-Visions in Literature and Performance, edited by Marianne Novy, pp. 67-85. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Novy contrasts the portrayal of the Desdemona character in Vogel's Desdemona and Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona.]
Two very different recent plays take a new and transforming look at Shakespeare's Desdemona, in ways influenced by different feminist ideas. The transformation in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) can easily be connected to a feminist impulse to show female strength and authority, though the play shows limitations in its woman warrior.1 By contrast, Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief contains no character anything like a role model for women. But, in its critical analysis of male power, the ideologies and structures that maintain it, and the exploitative possibilities in relationships between women of different classes, it shares concerns with feminists who focus on structures of oppression.2 Both plays raise the question of whether women can escape tragedy, and in neither one does Desdemona seem like an obvious victim. However, in MacDonald's play, Desdemona is, arguably, a recognizable...
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Criticism: Hot 'N’ Throbbing
SOURCE: Kelly, Kevin. “ART's Startling, Scorching Hot.” Boston Globe (19 April 1994): 23.
[In the following review, Kelly discusses the controversial nature of Hot ‘n’ Throbbing.]
Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, in ART's New Stages series, is likely to be the most controversial play of the year, the Oleanna of 1994. Whatever your response, you stumble out of the Hasty Pudding as battered as the woman trapped in its center, awed by the play's focus on sexual violence and its shadows of terrible farce. “God damn Oprah Winfrey,” the woman's abusive husband says, striking the horror of what playwright Paula Vogel is forcing us to watch. The participle is correct. Vogel—and director Anne Bogart—forces an intensity that convinces you what has been dramatized is not only necessary but inevitable. Trash-topic television has made it to the theater, but with far more serious purpose.
Using a currently overheated domestic issue, the dysfunctional family, Vogel has created a Home Life of sensationalistic dimensions. Rather than merely setting up a narrative frame about physical abuse, Vogel widens the canvas by asking perplexing questions about differences between pornography and erotica, about sexual debasement, about atavistic impulses without boundaries, about the impenetrable darkness of the psyche, all this packed into a single act that runs 85 minutes. It begins by...
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SOURCE: Blanchard, Jayne M. “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing Hits Abuse Head-on.” Washington Times (25 September 1999): D2.
[In the following favorable assessment of Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Blanchard commends Vogel's intelligence and compassion as well as her courage to take on controversial topics.]
With How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's subject was the sexual abuse of a young girl by a family member. With Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, it's domestic violence. Not exactly topics that have you tappity-tapping to the theater humming a peppy tune.
But when you think about it, it was not the incest angle or the fact that the hero gets his eyes poked out that has given the Oedipus cycle such a long shelf life. We have to own up to the horrible aspects of human nature, and we could not ask for a better guide than Miss Vogel. She takes us by the hand and urges us (seduces us, actually) into the darkest, most roiling waters all the while dispensing a raucous, bawdy humor that renders us puddles of helpless laughter. She marches us right up to the face of evil and dares us to look and see ourselves in the hard pores of this face.
Miss Vogel's plays are extreme and baiting. But the wondrous thing about them is how she brings out the shades of gray in such seemingly black-and-white issues as sexual abuse and wife beating. For all their daring, her plays are...
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SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “All Hot and Bothered over Porno.” San Francisco Chronicle (8 October 2000): F3.
[In the following mixed review of Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Winn maintains that Vogel's “strong subject matter gets squandered on a crude, oddly listless piece of theater.”]
Playwright Paula Vogel has never been afraid to speak up about the unmentionable. She dealt with her brother's death from AIDS in The Baltimore Waltz, lampooned a suburban terrorist in The Mineola Twins and saw the tender side of a child molester in How I Learned to Drive.
In her recently revised 1985 drama Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, which opened over the weekend at Venue 9, pornography, domestic violence and sexual objectification get an 85-minute workout. There's no denying the power of Vogel's material, especially when a romantic reunion curdles into brutality in a disturbing climax.
But the strong subject matter gets squandered on a crude, oddly listless piece of theater. Susannah Martin's tin-eared Paducah Mining Co. production never seems to catch the (admittedly elusive) temper of the play.
Vogel plays a contrived form-and-function game here. Her portrait of a single mother supporting herself and her two teenage children by writing “adult entertainment” is crammed with post-Brechtian alienation effects. One voice-over narrator...
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Criticism: The Baltimore Waltz
SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “A Baltimore Waltz with Love and Death.” San Francisco Chronicle (19 November 1992): D3.
[In the following review, Winn provides a favorable assessment of The Baltimore Waltz.]
AIDS gives the play [The Baltimore Waltz] its haunted minor key, its halting cadences and inevitable resolution, but the disease is never mentioned by name. In a comic tempo that wavers between enchantment and coy contrivance, Vogel inverts expectations by infecting a straight-arrow elementary school teacher (Anne Darragh) rather than her gay librarian brother (Rick Hickman) with a lethal disease. Accompanied, shadowed and hounded by a third actor (Kurt Reinhardt in a dazzling catalog of doctors, lovers, a Dutch boy in wooden shoes and other European prototypes), Anna and Carl take off on a whirlwind tour of the continent in search of a miracle cure. What awaits them, of course, is a last dance, a poignant farewell. The Magic's production is directed by Phyllis S. K. Look on a set (by Shevra Tait with lighting by Jeff Rowlings) that transforms the sterile white of hospital curtains into a billowy floating backdrop of clouds. Three assured performances—especially Reinhardt's bravura turn—go a long way toward smoothing over some of the more strained and thin aspects of the script.
When Anna is diagnosed with Acquired Toilet Disease,...
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SOURCE: Evans, Everett. “Actors Theatre Stages Worthy Baltimore Waltz.” Houston Chronicle (21 March 2001): 1.
[In the following favorable review, Evans commends the originality of The Baltimore Waltz.]
Though the field has grown crowded in recent years, The Baltimore Waltz remains one of the most original and personal plays dealing with illness and mortality in general, AIDS in particular.
Paula Vogel wrote the free-wheeling yet heart-wrenching fantasy in response to her brother Carl's death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1988. The premiere production was a collaboration between New York's Circle Repertory Theatre and Houston's Alley Theatre that played here in spring 1992, shortly after its debut off-Broadway.
Vogel since has become even better known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive. The Baltimore Waltz now returns in a sensitive rendition at Actors Theatre of Houston.
In Vogel's imaginative treatment, reality is turned upside-down. It is the schoolteacher sister Anna who is stricken with a mysterious malady, while brother Carl, a San Francisco librarian, tries to keep alive the hope that a treatment may be found.
They set off out on a whirlwind tour of Europe (the real-life trip they would have taken if Carl had gotten better). He tries to track down experimental drugs on the...
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Criticism: How I Learned To Drive
SOURCE: Evans, Everett. “A Long Journey: Multiple Ideas Spark Acclaimed How I Learned to Drive.” The Houston Chronicle (4 October 1998): 10.
[In the following essay, Vogel reveals the inspiration for How I Learned to Drive.]
Paula Vogel believes in letting an idea simmer before bringing it to life on stage.
“This is a play I carried in my head for 15 to 20 years,” Vogel said of How I Learned to Drive, the provocative off-Broadway hit making its Houston debut Wednesday at the Alley Theater.
“That's not unusual for me. Some of my plays have reached the writing phase in less time, but some have taken even longer. There's one project I've had in mind since I was 15 years old. Sometimes, you finally get the time and opportunity, you sit down and start to do the first 10 pages or so … then you realize, ‘I shouldn't be doing this yet.’ And you put it away until you're ready.” Vogel's modus operandi obviously works. How I Learned to Drive is one of the most acclaimed new plays in years, winning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Award, Drama Desk Award, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and other accolades.
An unusual coming-of-age story, it explores the forbidden, sexually charged relationship between a young girl named Li'l Bit and her Uncle Peck. He is the middle-aged, married man who, a la Vladimir Nabokov's...
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Criticism: The Mineola Twins
SOURCE: Hartigan, Patti. “Trinity's Mineola Twins Leads a Double Life.” Boston Globe (7 March 1997): D4.
[In the following review, Hartigan offers a mixed review of The Mineola Twins.]
Imagine a set of identical twins destined to grow up diametrically opposed to each other. As adolescents, they draw a line down the middle of their bedroom, setting up an ideological and territorial battleground they spend the rest of their lives fighting over.
What happens when biological twins disagree? What happens to baby boomettes who choose radically different lifestyles? What happens to women who are haunted by the same fears but end up miles apart in mindset? What happens to a culture so divided that dialogue is impossible?
Those are the intriguing questions playwright Paula Vogel asks in her play The Mineola Twins, which is having its New England premiere at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence. With its use of actors doubling up on roles and its uncanny blend of dreams, memory, and reality, the play probes deep psychological territory. In concept, there is brain food to spare, but in production, the play ends up as divided as the twins themselves. The first half plays like a crayon-colored cartoon, while the second half slowly turns into a poignant drama. By the end, it's clear that the style is part of Vogel's grand design, but the gee-whiz-it's-the-'50s...
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SOURCE: Winn, Steven. “Of Two Minds on Tolerance: Twins Take Opposite Paths in Comic Play.” San Francisco Chronicle (3 April 2000): D3.
[In the following review, Winn finds a lack of humor in The Mineola Twins and contends that the play “whips past four decades of American cultural landmarks without making these brisk travelers stand out or matter quite enough.”]
To Paula Vogel, the “play” in “playwright” means having fun with the form. In How I Learned to Drive, her light-fingered Pulitzer Prize winner about child molestation, and The Baltimore Waltz, which dealt with her brother's death from AIDS in a wistful romance, Vogel leavened her subjects with a nimble and tender comic touch.
The Mineola Twins, a 1998 script in its competent West Coast premiere at the Actors Theatre, is a thinner piece of work. Structured as a cartoon fable, it follows suburban twin sisters from the 1950s to the '80s and offers a kind of object lesson on terrorism and tolerance. Vogel's theatricality bubbles through, especially in a stronger act.
The dopey, big-breasted Myrna (Peggy Lopipero) is the high school virgin in the show's Eisenhower-era opening. She may not be sure about Arthur Miller (“Isn't he the baseball player?”), but she knows she wants to save herself for marriage.
Boyfriend Jim (a cross-dressed and miscast Liz...
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SOURCE: Evans, Everett. “Mineola Twins Rates Double Laughs.” Houston Chronicle (16 August 2000): 4.
[In the following review, Evans lauds Vogel's humor as well as the inspired premise of The Mineola Twins.]
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, The Baltimore Waltz) has built The Mineola Twins around an inspired premise, rich in comic potential.
In Vogel's satiric look at American womanhood from the 1950s-'80s, twins Myrna and Myra are identical opposites. Alike in looks, they are night and day in attitudes and experiences. Life and the playwright put them through the wringer, with wild adventures that drive them to opposite ends of the sociopolitical spectrum, despite occasional psychic flashes of sisterly connection. Produced off-Broadway in 1999 with Swoosie Kurtz doing a bravura turn in the title roles, The Mineola Twins makes its Houston debut in an uneven yet worthwhile production at the Little Room Downstairs Theater.
Vogel's starting point is the suburban enclave of Mineola, N.Y., in 1959. The era's cliche: There are good girls and bad girls, no in-betweens. Myrna is the goody girl next door, teasing upright boyfriend Jim to the point of distraction, yet determined to save herself for marriage and the housewifely bliss she envisions.
In contrast, Myra is tough, restless,...
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