Theatre Review: ACT’s “The Tosca Project” – a dance journey through time toasting the beloved Café Tosca
Saturday night’s world premiere production of “The Tosca Project” at ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) (through July 3, 2010) marked the first time I had been to the historic Geary Street theatre since I stopped my season subscription two years ago. I love good theatre and had subscribed to ACT for several years. Increasingly though, I found myself struggling to connect emotionally with the stories and characters. Lacking the private Ah-ha moments that actively engage the senses and intellect, the experience too often seemed flat. At nearly $75 a pop for Orchestra seats (plus parking and incidentals like gas and bridge faire), I began to begrudge the expenditure and the considerable chunk of time invested in a drive into the City for a less-than spectacular evening.
Having given it a rest, I was eager to see “The Tosca Project” and to revisit ACT. ACT’s artistic director Carey Perloff and SF Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli worked together on this piece for four years which Caniparoli calls “a character study through movement.” San Francisco’s Café Tosca ranks as one of my favorite old-European style bars in America–a place that time forgot. The collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet held the promise of new energy.
The experience was pleasant but not memorable—the dancing carries the show but the storyline is so underdeveloped that it doesn’t do jthis famous watering hole justice. Nor is there enough sustained dance in the 10 rapid-fire vignettes– lasting 90 minutes in all– to feel satisfied with it as a complete dance piece.
The idea itself is brilliant—a homage to San Francisco’s iconic Café Tosca, now 91, grounded in the history of San Francisco and set to an enthralling score of music ranging from Puccini’s Tosca to Rosemary Clooney singing “What’ll I Do?” to Jimmy Hendrix. Anyone who has ever been to the Café Tosca is keenly aware of the bar’s old world atmosphere and mystery–the play of light and shadow against that long solid mahogany bar, the burnished glint of copper from the espresso machine and the lingering melancholy permeating the booths. Current owner Jeanette Etheredge plays hostess to a glamorous celebrity crowd along with eccentrics, tourists and locals. While the world outside changes, Cafe Tosca doesn’t: the secrets, demons, and dreams of generations are well-tended ghosts. All this makes for great theatrical content– the characters hold their emotional histories in the space of the bar and the journey of the piece is the excavation of those histories. Instead of mining these connections, the production offers a furry of brief—albeit lovely—sequential dance encounters that speed by without enough grounding for viewers to really invest themselves in any of the characters or the bar itself.
The production opens as the founding bartender (Jack Willis) and his two business partners first arrive in San Francisco from Italy near the end of WWI. The bartender is haunted by a ghost–a woman from his past, reminiscent of the melodramatic heroine from Puccini’s Tosca. One of the bar’s first customers is an immigrant (Rachael Ticotin). A regular at the bar, she becomes its soul, anchoring it through time as a home for those without a homeland.
Prohibition comes just months after the bar opens and forces a clever change of menu. Café Tosca begins to booze up its coffee—the “coffee royale” is the genesis of Tosca’s now signature “house cappuccino”— Ghiradelli chocolate, steamed milk and shot of brandy.
During the Great Depression, a musician on the run from the law finds a haven in the bar and ends up with a job there. The action is then anchored around the trio of bartender, musician and Russian immigrant who reveal their tragic stories to each other and in the sharing find solace and healing. What is revealed directly to the audience though is precious little. Unless you read the program notes or the Words on Plays you are likely to be grappling as to who’s who and what’s transpiring in this nearly wordless production. The immigrant, for example, clutches a set of matryoshka (nested dolls). Those who can see them might deduce she is Russian but nothing about her tragic past–that she left her husband and baby behind– or that her great love of Russian dance and poetry connects her symbolically to current owner Jeanette Etheredge’s mother Arman Baliantz. Baliantz
established her own North Beach restaurant (Bali’s) and befriended a diverse array of artists, including the great Rudolf Nureyev, who is represented in one of the later vignettes. The lack of detail transforms the unique history of these patrons and of Cafe Tosca into universal patrons at a universal bar. With relationships between the characters as hazy as cigarette smoke lingering in the bar, there is little to hook the audience in emotionally.
The dancers clearly steal the show, beginning with a classical ballerina who gracefully pirouettes across the bar in a dream conjured up by the old bartender. Hopping along from Prohibition to the Great Depression to the flappers to WWII to the Beats to the hippies and digitalis, each new era is ushered in by a change in the music on the jukebox, a new dance fad and new fashion. The transitions are seamless but the performance begins to feel more like a generic dance sampler than the advertised “valentine to San Francisco.”
A humorous duo between the businessman (Canadian actor Peter Anderson) and classical ballerina (Sabina Alleman) is captivating and had the audience clapping wildly at the performance I attended. Anderson, who starred in ACT’s 2005 riveting wordless adaptation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” also shines as a Beat poet reciting Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” to a bar full of Beats and tourists. The trio of characters around which the performance is built remain emotionally distant throughout. The experience definitely calls for a drink afterwards and ticket holders are entitled to a buck off their tab at Cafe Tosca.
June 3- July 3, 2010, American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, tickets: $17 to $89. Tickets and info (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org