`Tamara': audience follows cast from room to room

ONE of the more innovative experiences in recent theatrical history is taking place in a refurbished American Legion hall in the center of Hollywood. Patrons who come to see John Krizanc's new play, ``Tamara,'' are not ushered into a traditional theater with seats arranged to face a stage. They are instead invited to enter a total environment. The entire building is the stage, and audience members follow the actors from room to room and eavesdrop on their rendezvous and reveries.

``Tamara,'' now in its 13th month, won six Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Awards this year, and a New York production is planned for the fall.

The kernel of inspiration for this revolutionary theatrical concept arose -- as is often the case -- out of necessity. Author Krizanc and the play's director, Richard Rose, were searching for a suitable theater in their home city of Toronto. They did not have enough funds to build a set as elaborate as they felt the work warranted, however, and they hit upon the idea of performing ``Tamara'' in the drawing room of a grand old mansion. Midway through the rehearsal period, one of them turned to the other and said, ``What if the audience didn't all sit together? What if they followed the characters to different rooms?''

It was in this innovative form that Krizanc and Rose presented ``Tamara'' at the 1981 Toronto Theatre Festival. Moses Znaimer, head of Toronto's independent television station CityTV, saw the production, was ``mesmerized'' by it, and resolved to give it a wider showing. He enlisted the aid of writer-producer Barrie Wexler, and together they mounted the Los Angeles production of ``Tamara.''

``The genius of any revolutionary idea is the simplicity of it,'' says Znaimer, who feels that this description is true of ``Tamara.'' Indeed, the multi-scene concept seems so natural, a common reaction to a first viewing of the show is, ``Why didn't anyone think of this before?''

Hollywood American Legion Post 43 has been transformed into Il Vittoriale, the Northern Italian villa of poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. Rooms are furnished with antiques, and the walls hung with rare artworks. Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka is said to have gone to D'Annunzio's villa in 1927 to paint his portrait. In ``Tamara,'' audiences are able to witness firsthand the re-creation of this portentous meeting and experience the romance, mystery, and political intrigue that ensue.

Upon arrival, each audience member is issued a ``passport,'' which doubles as a theater program. The large double doors swing open, and piano music drifts down the staircase. Girls dressed as 1920s maids greet patrons with ``Buongi'orno'' and offer complimentary beverages. A black-clad soldier stamps each passport and warns that losing it could result in deportation. Suddenly we are all in Mussolini's Italy of 1927.

Gradually the play begins to unfold. The accomplished piano player turns out to be one of the characters, as does the maid who was dusting the furniture. As the action begins, we learn that several scenes will be taking place simultaneously, so that while one scene is going on in the bedroom, another is taking place in the dining room, and still another in the kitchen. In between scenes, the audience members are free to follow any actor they choose to any room of the house. They may watch D'Annunzio and his housekeeper cook an omelet in the kitchen, or discover the plotting of a Fascist spy in the bedroom, or even overhear the chauffeur plotting intrigue -- outside in the back seat of a 1929 De Soto.

Throughout the evening, the 100-or-so patrons are treated not as an audience but as weekend guests in this elegant Italian villa. In keeping with the theme, guests are invited to take some refreshment, a snack of fruit, cheeses, and desserts -- all catered by Los Angeles's renowned Ma Maison Restaurant.

All the various plot lines come together in the end; those who want to come back to see the scenes they missed can do so -- at a discount. ``Tamara'' fans just retain their passports, which are stamped each time they come. With each viewing, the price is reduced, and after five visits, the tickets are free. (First-time ticket prices range from $45 for a matinee to $75 for Saturday night.)

``Tamara'' would be in danger of being just a clever idea if it weren't for the high quality of the acting and direction. Rose has assembled a troupe of excellent Los Angeles-based actors who work together beautifully in a cohesive ensemble.

Anjelica Huston, daughter of film director John Huston, played the title role of Tamara de Lempicka for several months and will re-create the part for the New York production. European actress Anna Katarina is currently playing the cool and enigmatic Tamara.

Playing the dissipated and disillusioned D'Annunzio is veteran Broadway actor Daniel Addes.

Playing so close to the audience is both a challenge and a delight to most of the performers. ``The whole reason we actors enjoy live theater as opposed to film or television is the contact with the audience, and nowhere do you have that as much as in this production,'' says Leland Murray, who plays Dante, D'Annunzio's philosophical valet. ``In this play you don't have the fourth wall, so the people are right there with you. You feel them breathing on you; you feel them react.''

Sue Giosa, who plays the passionate and clever housemaid, Emilia, concurs. ``The most exciting thing is that the audience participates,'' she continues. ``We have become a nation of watchers. But in this show, the audience has to participate -- not in the sense of talking to the actors, but in terms of following the actors and getting involved emotionally. And the payoff is that you must give in order to get; the more you commit to the production, the more you get from it.''

Karen Kondazian, who plays D'Annunzio's housekeeper and confidante, Aelis Mazoyer, says, ``It's like a wonderful party with all these new people, and you're the host. Every night is different, with the audience so close. Anything can happen, and you have to deal with whatever it is. It's like a tightrope act, and you're playing without a net.''

Each of the 10 characters has a complete story to tell, so in a sense ``Tamara'' is not just one play, but 10 plays interwoven. Coordinating all the concurrent scenes demands precise timing and often requires improvisation, which adds to the sense of immediacy and real-life involvement.

As preparation for their roles, many of the actors did research into the historical period involved. The play is, in fact, based on the actual diary of D'Annunzio's housekeeper, as well as some steamy correspondence between D'Annunzio and Tamara. Paintings by the real Tamara de Lempicka hang in some of the rooms.

The transformation of the American Legion Post into Il Vittoriale was accomplished by production designer Robert Cecchi, and the authentic period costumes were designed by Italian couturier Gianfranco Ferre.

Far from being frightened by competition, the show's producers are hoping that this new idea catches on and that more authors will try writing in this ``three dimensional'' form. As for ``Tamara,'' after the New York opening there are plans for productions in London, Houston, and Chicago.

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