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How It All Began

7c23bf_d8c006b7f475034f961a12ccb8fa31ae (1)It started in LA. Years before he would direct Quantum Theatre’s production of Tamara, John Shepard was visiting the West Coast, and a friend was playing the role of Gabriele d’Annunzio in a Los Angeles staging of the play. Shepard went to support his friend—and was blown away. “In the back of my mind,” says Shepard, “I always thought it would be perfect for Quantum.”

Fast-forward to 2014. Shepard and Quantum Artistic Director Karla Boos have discussed producing Tamara. As it turns out, they both saw the same LA production. Boos gives Shepard the thumbs-up; Tamara is a go. It isn’t until Shepard begins to read the play—a massive 350-page tome—that he wonders if maybe he’s in over his head. “We needed a place [that would be large enough], one character only speaks French, we needed a classic car…” Shepard recalls. “I said to Karla, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”

Too late to turn back. Tamara was slated for the 2014-15 season, and would be one of the largest productions Quantum has staged to date. Shepard began his research. “I read a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio. Once the Rodef Shalom was secured, I sat down with Steffi [Mayer-Staley, scene designer] and went over the floor plan,” Shepard says. Not only did the director have to research the time period and characters, he had to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the play itself, all 350 pages of the 10 different storylines. “It’s like directing five plays at once.”

Shepard’s copy of the play is a whole United Nations of different colored flags. Each character’s track was broken down and color-coded. Each scene was tracked through a spreadsheet, with character color-codes matching the flags on the script: every scene, every location, every character had to be coded and accounted for.

“We staged each track separately,” Shepard explains. “We’d block every scene for, say, Dante, and block the whole track for every character who shares a scene with Dante. By the time we got through half the characters, most of the other tracks were done.” But to jump into blocking at the get-go, Shepard says all actors had to be off book before rehearsal even began—“which is unheard of.” The director gives immense credit to his actors for that.

Once the tracks were set, the director and cast began to assemble them into the whole, simultaneously occurring play. “It was like putting together a Rubik’s cube,” says Shepard. Even with the floor-plan diagrams, the notes, the color-coded spreadsheets, timing every scene to occur at its exact right time was a challenge. For example, the director says, “I didn’t realize the effect stairs would have on the play. Stairs take time and energy. Actors couldn’t travel as quickly as I thought they could…Plus, we had to remember that each character is being pursued by up to ten people” in the audience.

Some changes have been made from the original script. Certain locations were changed for the sake of logistics. Or for fun, as was the case when Shepard and Boos decided to take advantage of the Rodef Shalom’s beautiful outdoor garden and begin the play there, instead of the atrium as John Krizanc had written. Another scene was written to take place in the kitchen—but the local chefs catering the evening’s meal will be occupying that space to prepare the food.

Shepard, a faculty member at Point Park University, has acted in a number of Quantum productions, including Betrayal, Speaking in Tongues, and Electric Baby, to name a few. He’s directed several plays, small scale and large, but nothing else as immersive and grand as Tamara. “What I like about Tamara is it was sort of the groundbreaker. Written in the ‘70s, produced in the early ‘80s—it’s kind of the granddaddy of immersive theatre.”

Four weeks in, it appears Shepard’s work—and the work of his talented cast and crew—has paid off. Beaming with pride, Shepard admits: “A compliment I heard opening night was from someone who saw the New York production—they said ours was better.”

-Brandon Getz

Dinner & a Show: Tamara Feeds You Family-Style

With Quantum Theatre, your experience is never the same twice. That goes double with John Shepard’s production of Tamara: not only can you follow a different character each time you see the show, you will also find a new menu—and a new wine—available each week of the run. With Tamara, Quantum not only dives into new territory with an immersive theatre experience, but also into providing both the dinner and the show: your whole night out, brought to you by Quantum Theatre and the amazing chefs of six great local restaurants.

When the idea to cater Tamara began to emerge, Quantum Artistic Director Karla Boos consulted Kate Romane, owner of e2 in Highland Park, and Dave DeSimone, whose Open Bottle Bistro on Ellsworth Avenue recently received a great review in The City Paper. Romane has been catering Quantum’s “Q Ball” for the last few years; DeSimone previously served as chair of the Quantum Board of Directors. The two chefs helped the Quantum staff to work out the logistics of the mid-show dinner and to recruit four more local food-artists to fill out the roster. “We worked out some structure,” Romane says, “They did the leg work!”

Romane and e2 catered the first week of the show, premiering August 5. Monique Ruvolo and Nicole Payne of Above & Beyond Catering will take over the second week. DeSimone’s Open Bottle will provide the Week 3 menu, Bob Sendall of All In Good Taste Productions will roll in a beef-and-lamb or quinoa roulade for Week 4, and Bill Fuller of Casbah brings braised chicken and polenta to Week 5. The final week of the run will have a stellar menu by Stephen Felder and Cara Delsignore’s South Side-based Stagioni.

“Having all these chefs, everyone is going to bring something different to the table,” says Romane. “But everything will be family-style, and everyone, I think, will be sticking to the theme [of Northern Italian cuisine].”

DeSimone is bucking the theme a little. “We’re going to be having Northern Spanish cuisine,” he explains, “but it’s something that you would find all over Europe.” Open Bottle Bistro’s entrée will consist of a hearty chicken Basquez, a stew with vegetables and red sauce, paired with a nero d’avola from Sicily called “Notorius”—“which,” adds DeSimone, “is a fun name for a wine.”

Tamara productionRomane, whose Big Table dinner series serves family-style meals like those you’ll find at Tamara, says she’s been inspired by Quantum to take food into new spaces. “One of the things that inspires me on the daily is my relationship to the community,” she says: from farmers in the Pittsburgh region to the merchants in the Strip District to the neighborhoods she cooks in and the people she feeds. “It’s inspiring to see what Quantum is able to do with found spaces—that’s what I want to do be doing with these dinners.”

On the topic of Tamara’s family-style dinners, Romane adds: “With the nature of the show, how everyone splits off, then bringing them back together at the table, [audiences] can share their experiences. It’s not so much an intermission as a continuation of the play.”

DeSimone agrees: “Any time people have a meal like this, and with a glass of wine, it breaks down some of the reserve…Who knows what kind of conversation will unfold.”

Be part of the conversation—and experience fantastic family-style food—at Quantum Theatre’s production of Tamara, directed by John Shepard, runs through September 14. Purchase TICKETS online or call 412-362-1713.

–Brandon Getz

 

Rich Colors: Costumes of TAMARA

“In Tamara,” says costume designer Pei-Chi Su, “all the characters have their secrets.”  What is Finzi hiding in the pocket of his military dress?  What does Emilia have on beneath her maid’s uniform?  Why does Mario’s chauffeur coat fit so poorly?  For Pei-Chi, the costumes are physical extensions of the mystery, layers of khaki and chiffon over the secrets every character is trying to hide.

“My style is to collect a lot of information first,” Pei-Chi explains.  “I like to do a lot of research and study the character, and then I select the information I want to use… [I use] the existing and add the more dramatic.”

Pei-Chi has pages of notes on the play’s ten characters.  She has mock-up boards of printed photographs from the time period—Italy, 1927—and plenty of pictures of the characters’ real-life counterparts.  She’s sketched designs for 21 outfits, incorporating a lot of beads, silk, and chiffon to give the costumes—especially the women’s dresses—that ‘20s look.  Despite the pages of preparation, though, she says, “Design is one thing—but the design isn’t finished until we’re actually in the fitting room.”

Having earned her MFA in costume design from Carnegie Mellon in 2001, Pei-Chi has worked with Quantum Theatre on past productions, but TAMARA is the first immersive-theatre project she’s done.  “It almost feels like doing a movie.  Onstage, we can hide stuff.  But [with TAMARA] we have to think about the close-up.  The detail has to be there.”

Tamara de Lempicka, 1928Pei-Chi’s character-driven designs endeavor to keep those details both subtle and realistic.  The servants’ clothes, she explains, “should look like they’ve been worn for several days, and they should look very comfortable in [their uniforms] because they probably only have two or three sets of clothes.”

The wealthier characters, though, have what Pei-Chi calls Gatsby style.  “Especially in the 1920s, you dressed for your status.”  Gabriele d’Annunzio, for example, has a specific outfit for everything he does, each one outlandish and Gatsby-fancy.  “He was a collector—these days, we might say he was a ‘hoarder.’  The same thing for clothes.”  Pei-Chi has photographs of d’Annunzio’s wardrobe, which included a monk’s robe, several kimonos, even more pseudo-military uniforms, and a pair of leather shoes with a rather cartoonish phallus painted on each where a normal person might expect laces.

“D’Annunzio does the most changing,” says Pei-Chi.  “He wears a white military uniform to greet guests.  When he prays, he wears the monk’s robe.  He might wear something else when he writes.  He has his rituals.”

The realism of the costumes doesn’t stop at the design, either.  The characters’ bedrooms are the actors’ dressing rooms.  Tamara’s dresses will be hanging in the wardrobe of her guest room, while d’Annunzio’s eccentric uniforms hang in his own lavish bedroom.  This is part Stanislavski, part logistics—the costumes can’t be labeled with a tag the audience might see. “Pei-Chi Su, Costume DesignerThe costumes are being made to look real.  Everything should be subtle,” Pei-Chi says.  “Except for d’Annunzio—his clothes are never subtle.”

See Pei-Chi Su’s costume designs in detail in Quantum Theatre’s production of TAMARA, directed by John Shepard, August 5 through September 14. Purchase TICKETS online or call 412-362-1713.

— Brandon Getz

“We’re Just Magpies”: Recreating an Italian Villa inside Rodef Shalom Congregation

  First FloorYou don’t watch John Krizanc’s TAMARA: you inhabit it. The familiar constructs of stage and curtain and backdrop are stripped away. You walk from room to room, a voyeur in another world, peeping across space and time into the rooms of a villa near Lake Garda, in Northern Italy, in mid-January 1927. The villa is inhabited by poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio, as infamous for his affairs and his association with fascism as he was for his contributions to literature. You arrive at the villa as Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka arrives, and the story begins.

Above is a room in D'Annunzio's Villa.

Above is a room in D’Annunzio’s Villa.

The problem, at least from a design point of view, is how do we time-travel without a flux capacitor?

“What’s challenging is the overall world. It’s just epic—it’s huge,” says scenic designer Steffi Mayer-Staley. “We are designing an Italian mansion [owned] by an eccentric artist—the mansion is stuffed floor-to-ceiling with things.”

Because of the immersive nature of the production, TAMARA requires more than just the suggestion of a scene: these ten rooms Mayer-Staley and assistant Jeff Fuga are designing have to at least give an impression of realism—Still Lives of D’Annunzio, you could call them. Encapsulated suggestions of his reality.

“Ideally we would literally transform the rooms all the way,” says Mayer-Staley. “But I’m thinking of it more as creating islands of realism inside the Rodef Shalom…We’re using three levels, emptying the hallways of their education center—we’re taking over.”

Noting that some of the congregation’s Judaic imagery will still be present inside the temple, Fuga adds, “Whenever you’re transforming a space to create a whole new world, there’s still a little bit of realism in the space—that’s what makes it so unique.” That’s also, he says, antique photos_for emailpart of the fun of working with Quantum Theatre: the space itself always adds its own character to the experience of the production.

The two designers have five weeks to design, furnish, and decorate the ten rooms being used for John Shepard’s production of TAMARA. “There’s no way we can build all of these things or buy all of these things or even lease them from prop shops,” Mayer-Staley explains. Instead, the designers have been canvassing the collections of local antique dealers and collectors, especially friends of Quantum Theatre who’ve offered up their collections for perusal. Graham Shearing, Navarro Design Associates, The Mattress Factory’s Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk, Concept Gallery, and metalworker Francis Nowalk, who also created light fixtures for the Rodef Shalom decades ago, have all had their storerooms examined for possible TAMARA props, as have a dozen others.

“We’re just magpies right now,” says Mayer-Staley. “Collecting shiny and interesting things.”

Because TAMARA takes place across two days, things can change inside the rooms. People are living in this villa, after all. While the audience sits down for dinner between acts, the characters sleep. As you revisit rooms in Act II, keep an eye out for subtle differences, objects uncovered that may tell you more about the story. “Through the whole play, secrets are being revealed and these layers are being shed,” Mayer-Staley explains. “We’re thinking of slight transformations of the spaces, where something is revealed that wasn’t before, to shed new light on the characters.”

Time-travel to Gabriele D’Annunzio’s villa, as designed by Steffi Mayer-Staley and Jeff Fuga, in the Quantum Theatre production of TAMARA, directed by John Shepard, August 5 through September 14. Purchase TICKETS online or call 412-362-1713.

–Brandon Getz

Cartoon Couture: The Costumes of Pantagleize

Tony Bingham (as Margaret Thatcher) and Susan Tsu

Tony Bingham (as Margaret Thatcher) and Susan Tsu

“Susan Tsu has a delicious imagination,” says Pantagleize director Jed Allen Harris. Tsu, an internationally renowned designer and faculty member at the CMU School of Drama, has dressed, draped, and disguised the characters of past Quantum Theatre productions Cymbeline, The Task, and The Golden Dragon—but nothing onstage has been as outlandish and absurd as the larger-than-life ensemble of Pantagleize.

“It’s not subtle!” Tsu warns. “It is a no-holds-barred comedy. There are portions of it that feel very Marx Brothers or Three Stooges…There are disguises. There are character transitions. A lot of opportunity for some sight gags—that I’ll keep to myself.”

Tony Bingham

Tony Bingham

In one of the most memorable gags of the show, one actor plays several parts at once, portraying various dictators of the world. “That was the most fun,” Tsu says. “Early on, even before [writer Jay Ball] put pen to paper, Jed and I were talking about things we could do: oversized heads, world leaders sitting on toilets…” In the final draft, Ball worked the leader-on-the-toilet gag into Pantagleize in a different sort of scene, and Harris put Tsu to work creating the outrageous looks of the dictators.

“The style of them was driven by the inclusion of [Ugandan ruler] Idi Amin,” says Tsu. “I didn’t want a white man in blackface. It’s a very obvious mask, hokey and over the top.” While Amin is a full mask, other despots come to life with just a nose or a forehead/chin combo. Tsu spent time researching photographs of each world leader to capture authentic aspects of their real-life counterparts. While the costume designs play caricature to the extreme, each one displays components from what the rulers really wore.

Tony Bingham, Weston Blakesley (Photo: Heather Mull)

Tony Bingham, Weston Blakesley (Photo: Heather Mull)

The biggest challenge Tsu faced, however, was the play’s disregard for chronological exactness. “The play references Allen Ginsberg in 1965, but it also references the Occupy movement and selfies.” All of the costumes draw upon a kind of cultural consciousness. We know, for example, that the president is evil because he wears an eye patch, and that our hero is a peacenik professor-type because he’s got glasses and a blazer over a tie-dyed shirt. Because Pantagleize exists in the cartoon universe of absurdity, the play’s wardrobe can span decades. Its satirical world holds a funhouse mirror to the audience, reflecting a masked and eye-patched version of our own difficult reality. That’s part of the fun.

Pantagleize marks the second Quantum collaboration between Susan Tsu and the creative team of Harris and Ball. The three previously worked together on The Task in 2010. “Jed, Jay, and me—each of us has an activist in us, within our own mediums. We each want to be working on pieces that have political and social relevance.”

Randy Kovitz, Tony Bingham, Weston Blakesley, Alex Knell, and Max Pavel (Photo: Heather Mull)

Randy Kovitz, Tony Bingham, Weston Blakesley, Alex Knell, and Max Pavel (Photo: Heather Mull)

Tsu admits that the work isn’t always hard-hitting political commentary or biting satire; she’s loved designing for all the Shakespeare and musicals throughout her career. But there’s something about theater with an activist message that attracts her. Like Jay Ball in Prague and Jed Allen Harris in Bulgaria, Tsu witnessed firsthand the difficult transition of the former Soviet Union into its fractured map of new republics. In 1993, Tsu designed costumes for a production of The Balcony, starring opera legend Sarah Caldwell, at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow—a show that wrapped just before the Constitutional Crisis, during which hundreds of demonstrators were killed in a ten-day conflict with a military that supported then-President Yeltsin.

“What’s challenging,” Tsu says, “is that we are not just [producing] a comedy. There are dark moments, serious issues. It’s not exactly a crush—but it is a reality check.”

See Tsu’s costume creations take the stage in Pantagleize at the Lexington Technology Center in North Point Breeze, April 11 through April 27. Get your tickets now at quantumtheatre.com

–By Brandon Getz


 

Watch the Pantagleize Trailer:
PANT-TrailerImage copy

PANTAGLEIZE: Tell us what you think…

Quantum Pantagleize preview

We hope your experience at Quantum’s Pantagleize was a good one. Our staff and board are interested to hear what you think, and encourage you to talk with others as well, so we have initiated an online conversation you can join with fellow attendees. What did you like/dislike about the production? Was there something in particular that resonated with you? Something particularly confusing? Any comments or suggestions are greatly encouraged.

Leave your comment in the comment box below. Be sure to click the box that will notify you of responses to your comment.  Some will come from Karla, and some (we hope) will come from other patrons.  You’re a valued member of the Q-mmunity.  We’re all hoping for greater understanding through the art that we experience.

We greatly appreciate your thoughts and look forward to continuing the conversation of Pantagleize… and of Quantum Theatre experiences to come, we hope there will be many more.