Is the theater of tomorrow Tamara?

I figured Luisa was behind the screen. An easy guess. Dante, the valet, had left me in her bedroom with the assurance that she’d be back soon, but Dante is a joker. And Luisa, whom I’d met only the night before, is a bit, well, crazy. You can come out now, I was thinking, when suddenly I heard a thud from the armoire that I was leaning against. I jumped away, the oak door creaked open and out came a woman’s hand, limply holding a silver pistol.

Luisa was slumped down in the armoire, lost in mysterious thought, and didn’t seem to notice me. Lithely she pulled herself up, then moved to the bed, falling upon it as if drunk. She began loading the gun’s chamber, very slowly, methodically. And for each bullet she inserted, she said a name-Elea-nora Duse, Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bern-hardt . . . I knew these to be former lovers of the man who had once taken her as his mistress, the famous Italian poet and World War I general, Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose villa we occupied.

As if she had heard someone beckon, Luisa jumped off the bed and bolted for the door. I quickly followed her out, through a small corridor, to the second-floor balcony above d’Annunzio’s entry hall where a small crowd had gathered. Luisa stayed close to the walls as she circled the balcony, her wild eyes darting back and forth to make sure she wasn’t seen. Then she crept to the balustrade and as I looked on, helpless to stop her, she stretched out her arm and fired.

“Luisa!” exclaimed a reprimanding voice from below. It was d’Annunzio, surprisingly unconcerned. “How did she get a gun?”

Déjà vu. This I had heard the night before when I had been on the atrium floor and the shot had come as a shock. Since Luisa’s bullet hit only the ceiling, d’Annunzio and the household of II Vittoriale got back to the business of preparing for the arrival of Tamara de Lempicka, the famous French-speaking Pblish painter. Amid the scurry of servants and guests, I ran downstairs. Luisa, the gun taken from her, was going a different direction, but that didn’t matter. I’d had enough of Luisa and her madness, and a maid had caught my eye. After all, this was Tamara, “the living movie,” Los Angeles’ hottest theater ticket. The play I had come to see was up to me.

You can imagine the scoffings of the New York theater hardliners when a second cast of Tamara, now in its second year in Hollywood, opens next month on the other coast. A 10-character play that takes place in 15 different rooms? With as many as eight scenes going on at once? While the audience runs about following whomever they want? Bosh, they will say. And the critics, the ones who bother to show up, will say that Tamara is not exactly theater. Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t and maybe . . . who cares? Tamara is fun. Great fun, in fact, worth not only its high ticket price ($75 on Saturday evening, down to $50 for matinees) but the price of a ticket to either coast.

Wasn’t Disneyland once reason enough to go west? Well, the Haunted Mansion can’t hold a candelabra to the surprises inside II Vittoriale, otherwise known as the American Legion Hall on North Highland Avenue. In the basement, the new chauffeur, Mario, schemes with Emilia, the maid, against the Fascist policeman Finzi. Meanwhile, in the chapel, the composer de Spiga lends sympathy as the scorned Luisa recalls her glory days as a concert pianist, which she gave up for d’Annunzio. And in the kitchen, the great man himself is cooking an omelette-really cooking an omelette-for Aelis, his head housekeeper and confidante, whose help he needs in seducing Tamara. There’s quite a bit of seduction going on at II Vittoriale, as well as an attempted rape, a kidnapping plot, a suicide attempt, two murders and a mental breakdown. In this play that has everything (even cocaine abuse), one also finds more than one play.

Tamara is active voyeurism, so active that patrons are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes-comfortable enough to run in. As members of the cast dash about the house pining and plotting, the audience dashes on their heels, sometimes literally. Scenes are played in real space and time, usually with several going on at once. Audience members are allowed to follow any character they like and to change characters freely. The play is an ingenious convergence of several plots that all work toward a common climax. The play you get depends on the choices you make, and on the bits of information you trade with other theatergoers at intermission. As a drama, Tamara is less than fully satisfying, mostly because you necessarily miss out on much of what is happening. But John Krizanc’s high-soap-opera script succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of bringing the whole audience of 125 along one main journey via many different back roads, each one interesting enough on its own. The excitement comes in actively pursuing the characters and in being a fly on the wall.

Tamara came to Los Angeles from Canada where a scaled-down version was the hit of the 1982 Toronto theater season. It was conceived by Krizanc and Richard Rose, who directed the play. Executive producer Moses Znaimer and producer Barrie Wexler, both of whom have backgrounds in television, hustled the show to Hollywood backers, appealing to L.A.’s theater-town ambitions. But surely it was as much the city’s nose for gimmicks as for art that sealed the deal. A stumbling block was finding a building in which to stage the show. Tamara required an Italian villa, or something like it, with connecting rooms, central areas, adequate parking and commercial zoning. The producers finally found their II Vittoriale in a little-used American Legion hall on a seedy main thoroughfare in Hollywood. The inside of the building, with its atrium, auditorium, multiple staircases and basement, met the script’s demands and allowed for a wine and dessert intermezzo catered by Ma Maison.

But the real feat was making people understand what Tamara was, and what it wasn’t. Despite initial favorable response by the local press, people were skeptical. Was it a game, like the popular mystery weekends, wherein spectators become amateur Hercule Poirots? Was it avant-garde? And wasn’t the ticket price steep for a mere play? An expensive ad campaign and sightings of celebrities in the audience bolstered Tamara’s business, but it was word-of-mouth excitement that established the living movie as a bona fide long-run in a town where nothing lasts forever and very little lasts 15 minutes. After two dry spells where it looked as though Tamara might have to close due to dwindling houses, the show is now selling to its 125-person capacity (upped from its original 75) on most nights. Last winter, celebrity actresses Karen Black and Angelica Huston (who’s getting attention for her supporting role in Prizzi’s Honor) joined the cast for more than a month, and the producers say they will welcome celebrities into the cast in the future. (Huston is planning to open with the New York company and it’s unlikely that she’ll be the only “name” involved.)

More than 50,000 people have seen Tamara, and what with the good national press it’s received, this could be just the beginning. As if popular and financial success weren’t enough, last month Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed Tamara Day, “in recognition of Tamara’s unique contribution to the cultural life of the city.” Back in Canada, Znaimer and Wexler are hatching a new Tamara-style entertainment that takes place in a spaceship, and are scheming to take Tamara to Paris and London.

The historical setting for Tamara is as lavish and as decadent as Hollywood itself. The real-life Gabriele d’Annunzio was one of Italy’s most popular figures, a statesman and poet whose inspiring speeches helped lead Italy into World War I. He was also something of an eccentric and a great womanizer (a long “partial list” of his amorous conquests, including two countesses and a marchesa, comes in the Tamara press kit). By 1927, the time of the play, his unpredictable political philosophies made him a potential threat to the new Fascist regime, so Mussolini placed him under virtual house arrest at II Vittoriale degli Italiani, the Shrine to Italian Victories. Here he was debt-free and indulged, but always under II Duce’s watchful eye. Krizanc’s story hinges on the visit of the real-life painter Tamara de Lem-picka, whom d’Annunzio summons to paint his portrait, although he has little interest in merely sitting. The other eight characters in Tamara are fictitious, but just as grand, from the perversely religious Carlotta, the young ballerina who desperately wants an audience with d’Annunzio so that he might recommend her to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, to the dashing Mario, whose chauffeur duties belie his true heritage and mask his fateful intentions. The play is an entanglement of entanglements, and it is a credit to Krizanc that Tamara neither hangs by loose ends nor trespasses into incredibility. Somehow it seems that this whirlwind melodrama, which makes an episode of Dynasty look slow, just might have happened.

The producers say that the point of Tamara is to push the audience beyond the normal parameters of fantasy, to remove the “fourth wall’-and the other three as well. Tamara, therefore, begins before you know it. Playgoers arrive to find less-than-friendly Fascist policemen directing cars in the parking lot. In an entryway, tickets are relinquished to a blackshirt with a menacing mustache who then stamps the passport that transplants you to II Vittoriale. Without realizing it, you have met the nasty Finzi, the Fascist watchdog. Italian maids hand you champagne as you pass into the center room of the house, where a formally dressed pianist-de Spiga, it turns out-is playing. The curious wander into several of the meticulously decorated rooms. Then a valet enters and introduces himself to the audience. He is Dante, and he explains the procedure for the evening, all the time keeping in character. You may follow whom you like so long as you follow someone at all times. No wandering around on your own. (The actors tell stories of lost guests walking in on them during embarrassing quick changes.) And when you enter a room, move toward the back wall to stay out of each character’s way. The audience is divided into three groups to get the initial three scenes going.

Early on, I decided to follow the head housekeeper, Aelis. It seemed like a smart choice, since my passport-the program-identified her as d’Annunzio’s confidante. If there was an Upstairs, Downstairs division to the play, I reasoned, then Aelis will show me both. (There wasn’t, it turned out, but following her was still a good move.) Mainly, though, she was terribly appealing, with a mellifluous voice and a devious glint in her eye. I liked her. I ended up following her throughout the first act and would have stuck with her throughout the play, but after intermission we were regrouped and it took me until nearly the end of the show to find her again. This wasn’t as frustrating as you might think. Each scene was a new piece to what became an expanding puzzle. Losing Aelis meant finding new characters, new drama and new clues. It also meant an amusing trip to Mario’s bathroom, where Mario was taking a shower. After all, seeing new rooms is half the fun.

I have never seen an intermission like Tamara’s. The elegant sweets from Ma Maison were inelegantly devoured between bites of raw data. Strangers were talking to strangers as if they were soap-opera soul-mates from way back.

“Did anyone see Tamara packing?” asked a young woman, clearly distraught.

“I did,” said another, “but what happened with her and d’Annunzio before I came in?”

“I think Tamara’s working for Mussolini,” said a third voice.

“Tamara’s got to be neutral,” offered my friend Tom, who was really into this, “but I think I know who is working for Mussolini.” He said this with perfect I-know-something-you-don’t]-know finesse.

“Who?” said six people in unison.

Like many who attend Tamara, I went back for seconds. This isn’t necessary, but I found the combined experience of two shows even more satisfying than my first performance, and two was enough for me to really have the plot nailed down. Besides, the returning option is enhanced by a 20-per-cent-off returner’s discount. The discount gets bigger with each return, until after your fifth visit, when you become a lifetime free guest, of which there are about 20. One man, a doctor, has seen the play 20 times.

On the second night, I put myself in Group Three, not because I cared about following a certain character (although I did have a few in mind, and on my second visit I was much more of a sleuth than on my first), but because I wanted to see Luisa’s bedroom, and that’s where Group Three was going. “It’s a great bedroom,” Tom had advised. Much of Tamara is campy glamour and this was an outpost I had missed. Luisa’s room was small but splendid, all pastel opulence and fine-crafted antiques. This is a great bedroom, I remember thinking, but where’s the play? I didn’t need to wonder. In the theater of Tamara, regardless of where you go, or for what reasons, you can be sure that something will pop up-or out, as was the case with Luisa and the armoire.

For tickets, call (213) 851-3771.


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