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The world is not divided between people who saw Tamara the first time around, back in the early eighties, and people like me who were unaccountably doing something else that decade. But it often seems that way. Even so, I was a bit surprised to learn that John Krizanc's boundary-busting interactive theatre piece about the meeting of Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka and Italian poet and war hero Gabriele d'Annunzio, in Mussolini's fascist Italy in January, 1927, is being revived as part of the du Maurier World Stage Festival this month in Toronto.

Partly it is nostalgia. Partly the play is a fundraiser for the Necessary Angel Theatre Company -- hence the $125 ticket price. And partly it is entrepreneurial. Producer Moses Znaimer thinks the medium may finally have caught up with Tamara's technological message: He is eager to persuade Alliance Atlantis, which owns electronic rights to Tamara, that DVD technology is cheap and sophisticated enough to adapt Tamara's fractured narrative form to video.

Far from being a creative, but now dusty, period piece for a limited audience, Tamara is, in Znaimer's view, ripe for a new iteration with a younger generation that has grown up in a world of 200 TV channels, and has no problem handling three or even seven scenes simultaneously.

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All in all, there were as many intrigues as there were players -- and that includes the audience -- at the dress rehearsal for Tamara Sunday night at Graydon Hall, a 29-room mansion in suburban Toronto. The play (which opens for previews today and continues until April 13) is rife with sex, politics, ambition and violence -- nothing new there.

The innovation that made Tamara so startling when it opened at the Toronto Theatre Festival more than 20 years ago is that it is really not one play, but 10, with the audience asked -- more correctly ordered -- by the black-shirted fascist policeman Aldo Finzi (Victor Ertmanis) to choose a character: perhaps the mysterious new chauffeur Mario (Dan Lett); or Luisa (Maggie Huculak reprising her original role), the depressed concert pianist; or de Lempicka herself (Tamara Hickey). They then follow him or her up and down the stairs, and in and out of bedrooms and bathrooms, in a rambling mansion decorated to look like a villa in fascist Italy in the late 1920s.

There are always three scenes going on at the same time in different parts of the house. The cast is impervious to the audience, other than to push someone out of the way who is blocking a doorway or leaning on a prop. Choose badly and you may hear a scream, a gunshot, or a car roaring off in the distance, and end up feeling the real action is happening elsewhere -- much as in life.

The playlets are so cleverly and strongly written that each one gives you a new piece of the puzzle, and reiterates a key bit of information. Still, unless you go back to see Tamara again, or compare notes with friends, you are likely to be a little confused about the sexual triangle between Aelis the housekeeper (Maria Ricossa), Carlotta the ballerina (Amy Walsh) and d'Annunzio the spent Lothario (John Gilbert).

Audiences and critics loved Tamara when it opened in Toronto back in 1981. Znaimer took it on long runs in Los Angeles (a decade) and New York (3½ years). Sounds like a money-maker. Alas, there is a fatal commercial flaw in Tamara. It costs as much to mount as any other piece of theatre with 10 actors, but Tamara needs a large private house and a small audience. "It is the 100 people a night that is the killer," Krizanc lamented in a telephone interview last week. "Between L.A. and New York, I think we generated maybe $35-million in box office, and I don't think we ever made any money."

Had he known what he was getting into, Krizanc says he certainly wouldn't have embarked on Tamara, the play that made his name, all those years ago when he was still working full-time as a buyer for a Toronto bookstore. "It is tough as a writer that my name is always John "Tamara" Krizanc, he confessed, "but it is also corrupting. It is hard to go back and do straight plays after that kind of experience, which is probably why I work so much in film and TV."

A charmingly self-deprecating man with a deep voice and a subversive laugh, Krizanc interrupted himself to say, "I don't think it is the ultimate, but just the sheer typing on keys makes it too high a mountain to climb. It is a 400-page bloody script."

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And everytime Tamara opens, he has to rewrite to accommodate the spatial dimensions of the new venue, adding or deleting lines. Management at Graydon Hall said the actors could rehearse for free in the house, so long as nobody booked it. After a week, the inevitable happened, and Richard Rose, the original director and the guy who developed the idea for Tamara with Krizanc, had to move the actors into a warehouse to continue blocking the play. "It was all on one floor," explains Krizanc, "so when the actors were going to the second floor, they had to stand in one place and count out 20 stairs."

All that rewriting and re-imagining means that even Krizanc has trouble sorting out the real from the apocryphal about Tamara's genesis. He thinks it grew out of a sunny Sunday afternoon at Rose's house, with the two of them drinking vodka tonics and carrying on parallel conversations. Rose was talking about the upcoming '81 festival and the opportunity it might provide to highlight a production by their fledgling Necessary Angel company. Meanwhile, Krizanc was talking about a limited-edition illustrated book that combined plates of de Lempicka's paintings with a diary that the real-life Aelis had written about the artist's visit to d'Annunzio's villa.

"This would make a great movie," he said to Rose, thinking of some of his favourite Italian films by Visconti, as well as Bertolucci's antifascist masterpiece, The Conformist. Rose started musing about doing a play about d'Annunzio. Krizanc countered, "Our company has no money. We couldn't build one set that would equal the lavishness of this guy's lifestyle." He thought maybe it would be something to do when they were "dreadfully successful."

But Rose was not easily dissuaded, and suggested that instead of building sets, they could stage it in a mansion such as Toronto's Casa Loma. They staggered over just before closing time, and let the architecture juice up the dramatic narrative that was already marinating in their imaginations. The stables suggested the chauffeur, for example, and then "suddenly you start construing the upstairs/downstairs narrative and that the audience could move from scene to scene."

Casa Loma was already booked, but they found space in a dilapidated bishop's mansion named after John Strachan. Soon after, Znaimer entered the picture. He remembers seeing it in previews and immediately seeing the synchronicity between Tamara and what he was trying to do at the neophyte CITY-TV: Rose and Krizanc were moving theatre across the proscenium, away from the world of suspended disbelief, and into something much more intimate and interactive; Znaimer was breaking free of the confines of the TV studio to take his cameras into the streets, and put his lenses and microphones in the faces of ordinary people.

"Where the public stood in Tamara is where the cameras stood at CITY-TV," he explained in an interview. "And so my identification was intense and immediate." For their part, Rose and Krizanc were happy to make a deal with Znaimer, since they were "selling out and still managing to lose $1,000 a week."

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The difference now is that, with a little luck, impresario Znaimer may have his timing in sync with DVD technology to spring Tamara from the non-profit doldrums into the economic big time.

Tamara plays at Graydon Hall Manor, 185 Graydon Hall Dr., Toronto (two lights north of York Mills Road, on the east side of Don Mills Road) from Thursday to April 13. For further information, call 416-973-4000.

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