Wed November 26, 2014 Before a San Francisco librarian named Carl Vogel died from AIDS complications in 1988, he sent some funeral instructions to his playwright sister.
“I want a good show,” he wrote, “even though my role has been reduced involuntarily from player to prop.”
But she did him one better. The Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel wrote a play called “The Baltimore Waltz,” about an imaginary trip to Europe she and her brother never took. It’s funny and bizarre in a way she thinks he would have appreciated.
It’s about AIDS, sort of, but it’s also about personal identity and family relationships, which is why StageWest is producing it to mark World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) in a double bill next weekend at the Temple for Performing Arts. The other show is the Des Moines Metro Opera premiere of Jake Heggie’s chamber opera “Three Decembers,” about another pair of siblings who discover unsettling secrets about their late father even while one of their partners succumbs to AIDS.
The directors of both companies — StageWest’s Todd Buchacker and DMMO’s Michael Egel — have wanted to produce the shows for years but had never found the right opportunity. So they decided to team up for the first time with a back-to-back program.
“It has a December theme, but it’s an alternative for people who want to see something that isn’t dancing nutcrackers and snowmen and that sort of thing,” Egel said.
The Indianola-based opera company has expanded its Des Moines programs over the last few seasons with stagings of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at Hoyt Sherman Place, an abridged version of “Carmen” at the Des Moines Social Club and — coming next July — the poisonous-plant-themed love story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” at the newly redesigned Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. The so-called Second Stages Series allows audiences to see shorter operas than the heavier, heftier shows in the summer main-stage season, like Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.”
But even with just three actors and a 10-piece orchestra, “Three Decembers” offers plenty to consider over the course of 90 minutes.
“It’s classic Heggie,” stage director Kristine McIntyre wrote in the company magazine. “Though smaller in scale than ‘Dead Man Walking,’ it too revolves around relationships between parents and children, specifically the common fear of parents that they have not prepared their children for the world and cannot protect them from it.”
The baritone Keith Phares will reprise the son’s role he originated at the 2008 world premiere in Houston, opposite Frederica von Stade. Here he’ll join Emily Pulley, as the sister, and Janice Hall, as the hard-charging Broadway stage mom whom DMMO director Egel likened to Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Phares had the audience in tears when he sang an excerpt a few weeks ago at a fundraiser at the Moberg Gallery.
But the 1992 play, directed by Brad Dell with three Ames actors, isn’t quite so tough.
“It’s a total farce,” Buchacker said. “They go on this extraordinary adventure where they meet all these crazy characters in Europe and try to find a cure for this totally fake disease called Acquired Toilet Syndrome. The whole thing is absurd, but underneath you find out what’s really happening.”
“It’s not ‘The Normal Heart,’ ” he added. “It’s not a big preachy play. It’s not one of those bang-over-your-head AIDS plays about the human struggle of losing someone.”
But it will still help the cause, which has been largely forgotten in the scary new era of Ebola. A portion of the proceeds from the double bill will be donated to The Project of Primary Health Care, which provides HIV testing and treatment here in Iowa.