It’s 1927. You’re in fascist Italy, in the splendid – one might even say, decadent! – villa of the famous poet and war hero Gabriele d’Annunzio (Fermin Suàrez), awaiting the arrival of Polish artiste and bohème supreme Tamara de Lempicka (Megan MacKenzie Lawrence), who is hoping to obtain a commission to paint d’Annunzio’s portrait. You’ve somehow found your way into the oratorio, a music room eclectically decorated with Persian rugs, masks, taxidermied animals, and (of all things) a large coffin. The talented musician Luisa (Robin Abramson) plays piano while the pious, pretty ballerina Carlotta (Cathryn Dylan) practices the dance she hopes will earn her d’Annunzio’s recommendation to Diaghilev, when – ta da! – Tamara arrives. Carlotta takes an instant dislike to her, and storms in tears from the room. Why is she crying? Only one way to find out – follow her! And quickly, because this girl is booking. You follow her down the stairs, into her dainty little bedroom among the servant’s quarters, where you witness not only her subterfuge (the crying is put on, an attention-getting ruse) but also a very revealing moment of intimacy between her and Aëlis, the manager of the household. And if – as happened to me – you are the only member of the audience who acted on that impulse to dash out of the oratorio after Carlotta, then, as the evening progresses, you’ll have the delicious feeling of knowing something about her that no one else knows! Until, that is, you gossip that information away during the intermission, over dinner, in exchange for being filled in on what happened in the oratorio after you and Carlotta left…
That scenario gives just an amouse-bouche of the lively and intriguing immersive theatrical experience offered by Quantum’s production of Tamara (directed with flair by John Shepard). While there is drama aplenty here, Tamara is not a play in the traditional sense, because any given member of the audience can only see and witness part of it: the characters’ interactions with each other play out simultaneously in many different rooms and, as a result, each audience member necessarily only gets a partial and contingent understanding of what happens over the course of the evening. What you get from the experience depends on how you choose to “do” the production: you can remain in one room, as in a traditional theater, and wait for various bits of the action to flow past; you can follow one character through the evening and get a full sense of his or her trajectory through the evening’s happenings; or you can simply follow your curiosity as it arises, and run off after whoever seems most intriguing at any given moment. Getting the whole gestalt requires comparing notes with others, which makes for easy conversation with the strangers you sit with at the gourmet dinner served during intermission, and has the added bonus of turning an evening at the theater into an unexpectedly social occasion.
The story that plays out is operatic in its complexity, and the performers work in a heightened register that suits the baroque quality of the play, if not always the intimate settings of the rooms. There are many many intrigues and secrets – romantic, politicial, financial, you name it – and at the end of the evening it’s unlikely you’ll have fully understood each and every one, but that’s okay: Tamara doesn’t aim at handing you a fully realized story, it wants to take you on a tantalizing journey. The actors rise beautifully to the many difficult challenges this play poses, not least among which is the devilish issue of timing (characters in one room may be unexpectedly interrupted by the early arrival of a character coming from another scene that ended early, or – worse – made to improvise while waiting for the arrival of a character delayed). The logistical precision on display makes visible the excellent work of those members of the theater ensemble whose efforts are usually most lauded when least visible: the stage manager (Caitlin Roper, assisted by Spencer Whale), production manager (RJ Romeo) and house manager (Arran Harland). Pei-Chi Su’s period- and class-specific costumes get all sorts of important details pitch perfect, from Aëlis’s wrinkly pre-nylon stockings to Tamara’s tight finger wave. But perhaps the main star of the evening is Rodef Shalom Synagogue, which has been utterly and convincingly transformed into a luxurious, labyrinthine villa by scene designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley, and which not only has the appropriate scale and grandeur for the production, but also allows the play’s thematic concerns – in particular its exploration of what it means to be an outsider, a foreigner, or a Jew in xenophobic times – resonate in unexpected and serendipitous ways.