Of late, I’ve had this urge to see theater at the Park Avenue Armory as if I had never been there. In fact, I did see a play there. And what an iconic one it was. The Park Avenue is a sterling setting for avant garde productions and this one was decidely ahead of its time.
My namesake multi-room drama, Tamara which landed here in November 1987 from Hollywood where it went after its debut in Toronto. At the time, the structure and approach were very novel. The play was an in-situ production, making use of the space, and having the audience confront it as they moved about from room to room. Immersive theater was a relatively unusual construction for the theater when John Krizanc wrote Tamara.
The award-winning play was performed wherever a large house could be converted to a villa, as at an American Legion post in LA where it lasted for a nine-year run by public petition for constant extensions, despite near weekly notices that it was on the verge of closing.
John Krizanc’s play is based on a historical moment when Gabriele d’Annunzio invited the painter Tamara de Lempicka to his villa in Lombardy, Il Vittoriale degli Italiani. The painter hoped for a commission to paint a portrait of the poet. He hoped she would lend her voice to his universalist political ideals; de Lempicka maintained her materialist stance.
To experience Tamara, one had many choices. Stay in one room and “overhear” the actors’ conversations as they enter. Follow an actor in and out of the rooms of Il Vittoriale. You may wish to switch and stay with a different character after a while. Or, after following an actor to a different room in the villa, you may choose to stay in that room and wait to see what transpires.
In New York, the fascinations of all these possibilities had it running for five years. When I saw it, I wandered through the rooms of the set to easedrop on the actors as they came and went. Trying to piece together the plot lines made the audience an “actor” in Tamara as well.
Its form as a puzzle proved to be an enduring and fascinating element in the play’s international success. It was revived in 2003 in Toronto on its 20th anniversary, and staged for a mere six weeks in 2004 at a landmarked synagogue in Pittsburgh.