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In the new Quantum show, you follow the actors around a big building 

Tamara, set in 1927 Italy, takes over Rodef Shalom Congregation

click to enlarge Megan Mackenzie Lawrence, Fermin Suarez, Quantum Theater Tamara
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Megan Mackenzie Lawrence and Fermin Suarez in Quantum's Tamara

The recent trend toward theater productions that let audiences choose among multiple scenes, or when to see them, isn't exactly new. This week, Quantum Theatre presents the Pittsburgh premiere of a pioneering 1981 play arguably more ambitious than any similar work it predated.

Canadian playwright John Krizanc has called his Tamara "[a] tale about the mass psychology of Fascism, sexual and political impotence." The fact-based story depicts 10 characters on two days in January 1927, in the opulent home of nationalist poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, who's under house arrest by Mussolini and awaiting a visit by famed art-deco painter Tamara de Lempicka.

What's striking is the play's form: Each audience member must follow one of the play's characters, whether wily servant or dissolute aristocrat, to his or her scenes. (Switching characters between scenes is allowed, with accommodations for less-mobile patrons.) The sprawling "set" is a whole building. And at any moment, up to 10 of the show's 100 scenes play out simultaneously in different rooms, sometimes with only one character.

While no patron can see the whole show, the cast unites at key moments. It's really 10 separate but overlapping plays, each with its own star ... and with a catered supper in the middle.

Tamara prefigured environmental productions like New York City troupe Punchdrunk's Sleep No More and, in Pittsburgh, Bricolage Productions' STRATA. While Tamara is not interactive — there's no bantering with the actors — its intimacy has drawn comments like "a living movie." The Los Angeles production ran for nine years; Quantum artistic director Karla Boos says that seeing it influenced the creation of her own itinerant, site-specific company a few years later.

Tamara requires coordinating actors who can't see each other across unusually long distances. "It's the biggest challenge I've ever had as a director," says Quantum's director, John Shepard (who also saw the L.A. staging).

Quantum's production takes over the grand chambers and hallways of Oakland's landmark Rodef Shalom Congregation; the voluminous set dressing features a grand piano, a stuffed warthog, saucy wallpaper and lots of cushions. The higher-than-usual ticket price includes champagne and an intermezzo dinner catered by top restaurants like E2 and Casbah.

Tamara is a philosophical melodrama that will keep you on your actual toes, with surprises around every literal corner (and up some stairs). Wear comfortable shoes.

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