Paula Vogel’s work, which covers such topics as AIDS, pedophilia, domestic abuse, and female sexuality, takes an aggressive view of the way theater has typically portrayed women. She tries to create characters that fly in the face of her audiences’ expectations. Her work is sometimes considered unsettling because she raises questions without answering them. She deconstructs both classic works and socially held beliefs in her plays. She often expects her audience to be familiar with works that she is parodying. Her plays are nonlinear and episodic in their construction, often using Brechtian elements such as slides or a chorus. Fiercely political, Vogel’s dramas are meant to get a rise out of both her audience and her sponsors. Although she considers herself a feminist, Vogel’s plays do not necessarily show women in a positive light. To the contrary, Vogel creates complex female characters who are often deeply flawed. She believes that only by creating unsavory female protagonists can women begin to be treated equally on the stage and in the world.
The Baltimore Waltz
Vogel’s first successful show was written after the death of her brother Carl from AIDS. In the introduction to the play, Vogel includes a letter from Carl that she urges all productions to include in their programs. This letter is the first indicator for the audience of the personal nature of this play. Opening at the height of the AIDS crisis, Vogel’s play attempts to both call attention to and universalize the disease by deconstructing the homosexual stigma that had become associated with it.
The play tells the story of Anna (Vogel’s actual middle name), a schoolteacher who is diagnosed with acquired toilet disease (ATD), a fatal illness. In search of a possible cure, she and her homosexual brother Carl travel across Europe, where Anna has sex with all of the men whom she encounters. At the end of the play, it is revealed that it was Carl who had a fatal disease, AIDS, and that the two never did manage to take Carl’s dream trip across Europe. Anna’s sexual conquests are used to show her independence from both societal norms (as dictated, often, by her brother) and the devastation of her AIDS-like illness. (Anna shows no ill-effects from the disease, and her doctor assures her that she poses no risk to her sexual partners.)
The Baltimore Waltz makes use of many Brechtian techniques. The characters act to title each of the scenes (for example, “Medical Straight Talk: Part One” and “Lesson Five: Basic Dialogue”). Also, one character, known as the Third Man, plays all of the people whom Carl and Anna encounter, including Anna and Carl’s doctor, Harry Lime (a character from the film The Third Man), and all of Anna’s sexual partners. Finally the seemingly harmless acquired toilet disorder also serves as a way to make light of the serious illness that it clearly represents. These elements constantly remove the audience from the light-hearted action of the play and act as a reminder of Carl’s (and Vogel’s brother’s) affliction with AIDS and their inevitable death.
Desdemona deconstructs Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. Vogel’s play retells the story from the tragic heroine’s point of view. Vogel’s Desdemona is not the innocent victim depicted in Shakespeare’s tragedy. On the contrary, she is a mean-spirited harlot who, when her husband is away, works at the brothel run by Bianca, who in this text is trying to be Cassio’s lover. There are only three characters in the show: Desdemona, her scullery maid Emilia, and Bianca. The play is broken down into what Vogel refers to as “thirty cinematic ‘takes’” that create a filmlike feel to the piece.
As the audience hears about Desdemona’s sexual exploits and sees her learn the “tricks of the trade” from Bianca, the audience grows ever more aware of the inevitable death that awaits her at the hands of her husband. By taking advantage of the audience’s...
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