Well, we got to Southern California last weekend and we sure have seen a lot of things you can’t see anywhere else in the world: the Magic Kingdom, the real live mechanical shark from Jaws—in the flesh—and even Monty Hall on Rodeo Drive. But last night we saw something that beats all. We were driving by the Hollywood Bowl and saw this line of limos and human cars turning into a parking lot and figured there might be a Barry Manilow concert or some other cultural event, so we turned in. The lot belonged to a building with an American Legion Post sign on the lawn, but a banner over the door said “II Vittoriale.” I remembered from Miss Frizzle’s history course that that was the name of the mansion of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian World War I hero and poet, so I got curious and we went in.
What we were stumbling into was one of the craziest evenings of our lives. The people at the door said it was a “living movie” called Tamara that would cost us $75 apiece—that’s the weekend price—but we would get a light supper catered by Ma Maison at the intermission. I wasn’t sure that was a bargain, but Calpurnia pointed out that the people in front of us were Bette Midler and Charlene Tilton and Molly Ringwald and Doug Barr, so we got in line for “Passport Control” where a Fascista in jackboots named Aldo Finzi glowered at us. “Why are you wearing those gloves?” Calpurnia asked, and he pounded his fist and snarled, “You like leather, honey? I get off at 11,” and ordered us inside.
The next room was a definite improvement, with Italian waitresses offering us champagne. We met Carolyn Demerjian, a drama coach at Hollywood High, who brought 34 people with her, the eighth time she had escorted a group of friends and students to Tamara. “You know the fantasy you have when you’re a kid,” she asked, “when you’re in a room and you can see what’s going on and you can’t be seen? That’s what’s going on here.”
It took us a while to figure out that ten different plays were taking place at the same time all over the building. The actors, like residents of any normal home, would scatter throughout the house, performing a scene with one character in, say, the master bedroom, then dashing off to the maid’s room for another scene. Our job was to follow characters around and, as best we could, put together a play that made sense. “It takes time to get used to the playwright not making the choices for you,” Moses Znaimer, the producer, told us. “Sometimes you make a choice that leads you to nothing. Ain’t that like life?” But after we got the hang of things we found ourselves running up and down stairs, down dark corridors, into incense-filled rooms, panting for breath but stumbling into some fascinating situations. Upstairs D’Annunzio was trying to seduce Tamara de Lempicka, the Polish artist. On the first floor the housekeeper was trying to seduce a young ballerina.
I hope it’s not giving anything away, but I was most intrigued by what was going on downstairs. In the bedroom and the kitchen the maid, Emilia, was getting passionate with Dante, the valet. And with Finzi. And with Mario, the chauffeur. And with…well, you get the idea. Of course each of these intimate moments was witnessed by a score or so of us $75-a-headers, but the actors seemed to think it improved their performance. “You can really feel the energy when the audience is right there,” Theresa Saldana, who becomes Emilia every night at 8, told us. The audience started feeling protective about Emilia/Theresa. When she got into a knife fight with one of her lovers, people around us gasped aloud—remembering the TV-movie Victims for Victims The real-life story of the savage attack on her—but she didn’t share their fear. “I know the difference between when it’s acting and when it’s real,” she said afterward.
But sometimes the audience doesn’t. Leland Murray, who plays little Dante, had coffee with us during intermission. “There’s a scene where Finzi is beating me up,” he said. “One night a woman jumped on his back and started pounding him and told him to get off me.” I guess a few of the actors have even bigger problems than that. “Some of the men get pretty irate because I abuse Emilia,” Bruce Abbott, who plays Mario, told us. “One night I had just thrown her on the bed and was threatening to hit her; I backed up and I stepped on somebody’s toe and I felt this hand on my shoulder. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger. I realized he was teed off because I was abusing this woman.”
Marilyn Lightstone, who played the housekeeper, told us about a noisy spectator she came across one night. He was standing where she normally did her final scene: “I could have stood on either side of him, there was room, but I gave him a good old-fashioned body check and knocked him over.” Not even celebs are immune to mishaps. I saw Harry Anderson, you know, the guy on Night Court, rush through a door and get locked out in the parking lot during the play’s climax.
So what’s the play about? Mr. Znaimer explained that “there’s a political line, a sexual line and a domestic line. You can watch the rise of fascism, the fall of a national hero or the unending intrigue of seduction and pursuit.” But bring comfortable shoes—there are lots of stairs.
By the way, if you don’t make it to Hollywood soon, you can see Tamara in New York this fall and soon, maybe, in London. This summer Znaimer and Co. are starting another “living movie” in their hometown, Toronto. It’s called A Tour of the Universe and it puts you on a space shuttle 50 years in the future. They want to keep this kind of theater alive, no matter what Tamara brings (sorry). They may bring out a mystery or an adaptation of Kafka at II Vittoriale. Co-producer Barrie Wexler said: “We want you to feel that, if you want to run around a house and chase actors, you’ll know where to go.”
Cousin George Spelvin