"On-site" or "environmental" theater breaks down the "fourth wall" between audience and actors, drawing spectators into the world of the play and sometimes including them in the action. Here in New York, two dissimilar (and wildly successful) productions, Tamara and Tony and Tina's Wedding, remove the fourth wall with exciting results.
Their differences are largely defined by class: Tamara, set in "Il Vittoriale," the sumptuous mansion (actually a converted armory) of Gabriele d'Annunzio, an exotic poet and patriot devoted to the art of seduction, chronicles the politics and passions of 1927 Italy. Tony and Tina is a wedding ceremony and reception for the two lower-middle-class, Queens-born Italians of the title.
Tamara is a cultivated, urbane affair. You are greeted at the door of the mansion by a butler and escorted to a plush lobby where you receive "passports" (in lieu of tickets) that you must have in your possession at all times or risk "deportation." They contain the story's historical background, thumbnail sketches of the 10 characters you'll soon be meeting, and "Finzi's Laws" (rules and guidelines for a successful evening). After getting your passport stamped by Finzi himself, a truly menacing fellow whom you don't want to cross, you are free to mingle with the other guests—100 people at most—and sample the canapes and cocktails offered by a crisply uniformed staff intent on treating you as if you were really Signore d'Annunzio's personal friend.
A brief speech by Dante Fenzo, Il Commandante's personal valet, and you're off on a whirlwind information quest. At Tamara, the audience is like a herd of invisible ghosts, following a character—the maid, a houseguest, Tamara—throughout the beautifully decorated house, eavesdropping on his or her private business, watching from inches away.
You soon realize that the play is chiefly concerned with who wants to sleep with whom and whose dark secrets will come back to haunt them. Pretty much the stuff of prime-time soap operas. But as written by John Krizanc and directed by Richard Rose, the multiple plots mesh ingeniously, so that no matter what room you're in or which character you're spying on you'll get snippets of all the stories. And if you've missed the dirt on, say, Carlotta Barra, an aspiring ballerina seeking d'Annunzio's recommendation to Diaghilev, other guests can fill you in at dinner.
The meal threatens to upstage the play. At intermission guests dine on a gourmet buffet, "designed by" Chef Daniel Boulud of Le Cirque, featuring filet of beef, curried breast of chicken, pasta primavera, and free-flowing champagne (Tamara offers lots of alcohol). The complimentary feast is an unmitigated pleasure that rejuvenates participants, who, on their desultory chase, spend a good part of the evening running up and down stairs and through long hallways, hunting down a character for the latest gossip. (The best stuff is, as usual, gleaned from the servants.)
Lacking a real mystery or, for that matter, dramatic tension, the script and acting seldom are better than mediocre. But this production isn't chiefly concerned with theater as much as spectacle; in that respect, the show is always glamorous and exceedingly tasteful, a fantastic lark that transports the audience to another land. For those who can afford the $135 price tag, Tamara is voyeurism at its best.
Tony and Tina's Wedding, conversely, is a raucous celebration of a decidedly present-day phenomenon. Where viewers at Tamara are asked to remain silent and not interact with the characters, guests at this affair can expect to talk, dance, and eat with the wedding party: the audience's "performance" is an integral part of the show.
At the hilarious ceremony (held in a real church), a Mister Rogers–like priest presides over a gathering of family (a loud mother, an incoherent grandfather and mustached grandmother, a father-in-law and his 20-year-old girlfriend, etc.) and friends (gregarious but suspicious "Guidos"—the best man wears sunglasses throughout the ceremony). The bridesmaids, who chomp on bubblegum during the service, wear low-cut, off-the-shoulder red gowns. Tony sports a band-aid on his chin—he cut himself shaving—and Tina, heavily made up with blue eye-shadow, vows to love him for "all the Days of our Lives," but they manage to get through the formalities, punctuating their contract with a deep French kiss. Once wed, Tony marches down the aisle, smiling smugly and chortling, "Okay, let's party!"
After kissing the bride and throwing rice as the wedding party climbs into their limousine (a decaying station wagon), the audience joins the happy families at Carmelita's, a cheesy reception hall located over a doughnut shop, where they dine on baked ziti and dance to the sounds of "Donny Dolce and Fusion," an appropriately awful band that plays hits from the past like "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown."
Tina and her bridesmaids do a lip-synch routine to Michael Jackson's "Bad," and Tony helps break up a fight. Tamara it's not. The entire affair is cheap but never sleazy, incisively satirical but never mean-spirited. Artificial Intelligence, the talented troupe that conceived and performs the show, has obvious affection for its subject; the humor of this production springs from its minute, telling details (the ex-boyfriend who wears a down jacket over his suit, the bridesmaid with a tattoo), imaginable only to people that really know and love their subject.
Tony and Tina's Wedding and Tamara succeed in drawing the viewer into an imaginary reality, though not by conventional theatrical methods. Their participatory spirit removes the theoretical barrier between performer and spectator and in the process liberates the audience, allowing them to join in the fictional proceedings both emotionally and sometimes literally. In environmental theater, all the world is a stage and we are truly players.
Michael Konik is the theater critic for A Critique of America.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Getting Into the Act".