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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Mary Zimmerman has another mesmerizing hit in the epic Chinese fable, “The White Snake,” at Berkeley Rep through December 23, 2012

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of “The White Snake,” which stars Amy Kim Waschke (left) and Christopher Livingston. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Told with puppets that come to life and magical special effects, Tony-award winning director Mary Zimmerman’s stirring adaptation of the ancient Chinese fairy tale, The White Snake, which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a must-see holiday treat.  Suddenly, we’re all children again and we’ve been taken into a world of wonder where a glorious legend, as old as time and yet timeless, unfolds on stage before us. The epic fable is about a thousand-year-old white snake spirit who is so curious about the human world that she transforms herself into a human.  She comes down from her contemplative life on a mountaintop with a friendly green snake who has also transformed herself into a woman and who serves as her friend and confidant.  The White Snake finds true love with a man who has no reason to suspect she is not human.  A meddling monk jeopardizes everything when he tries to break them up in order to enforce an age-old law declaring love relationships between spirits and humans an inappropriate violation of nature’s law.  Of course, when the White Snake hides her true nature from her true love, there are bound to be repercussions.

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of “The White Snake,” which features Tanya Thai McBride as Greenie, the green snake spirit who is the indefatigable sidekick to Kim Waschke’s White Snake spirit. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

This co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival ran in Ashland through July 2012 and is the seventh Mary Zimmerman creation to grace the stage of Berkeley Rep.  Like her other winners Argonautika (2008), The Arabian Nights (2008, 2010), it draws on a classic tale that has been re-shaped by her own distinctive vision to create a subtle exploration of love, deception, loss and survival.

Zimmerman’s plays are renowned for their stunning visual impact.  Projection designer Shawn Sagady and set designer Daniel Ostling have collaborated again to employ the latest in video projection techniques mixed with simple touches such as streams of silken fabric that drop elegantly from the sky to represent rain and the artistry of hand-operated paper snake puppets.  Particularly enchanting is the way the bamboo walls come alive when lines of ink projected on the walls seem to transform into lovely Chinese screens or when the floor becomes a river undulating with color. A wonderful set of wooden cabinets which opens to reveal a lovely bed is on stage for much of the production.  When combined with T.J. Gerckens’ gorgeous lighting, it all comes together and builds into a mesmerizing visual tableau.

Honesty is essential for any love relationship to flourish. In Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s production of “The White Snake,” Christopher Livingston plays the naïve herbalist, Xu Xian (left), who is deceived by his wife, played by Amy Kim Waschke, who does not reveal her true nature to him. Photographer: Mary Zimmerman

The visual magic is only half of the fun. The Chinese legend of the White Snake existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation, and was handed down from the Tang and Five Dynasties through the Ming and Qing Dynasties until it became a classical theme, its many versions inspiring Chinese operas, ballads, scrolls, novels, films and even TV series. (Click here for Berkeley’s Rep’s fascinating compilation of legend of the White Snake.) Zimmerman gives us a story that will delight a child but that has levels of meaning that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

Amy Kim Waschke, who plays the White Snake, has the remarkable ability to project empowerment with vulnerability and scattered-brained behavior, making for a very interesting and down-to-earth White Snake. Once she has transformed herself into a human, she begins to experience the fulfilling joy and pain of the human experience.  She will do anything to preserve her marriage except reveal the truth of her snake nature to her husband.

The White Snake’s loyal gal-pal “Greenie” (Tanya Thai McBride ) is there for her and understands her and they have a fabulous on stage chemistry that resonates much more than that between Waschke and Christopher Livingston, who plays Xu Xian, the naïve herbalist that White Snake is smitten with. Tanya Thai McBride is a natural cut-up and it’s a real treat to watch her blossom in human form in the many humorous scenes that occur.

Jack Willis, revered for his longstanding role as the Ghost Jacob Marley in A.C.T.’s much-loved annual production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is much scarier here as the cunning Buddhist monk, Fa Hai, who feels he must, at all costs, break-up the happy bi-species relationship.

Jack Willis (left) is Fa Hai, the evil Buddhist monk and Christopher Livingston is Xu Xian, the naïve herbalist and bridegroom in Mary Zimmerman’s production of “The White Snake,” at Berkeley Rep through December 23, 2012. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Composer/sound designer Andre J. Pluess’ enchanting original score is performed by Michal Palzewicz (cello), Tessa Brinckman (flutes), and Ronnie Malley (strings and percussion).

Creative Team:  Adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman; Designed by Daniel Ostling (sets);  Mara Blumenfeld (costumes);  T.J. Gerckens (lighting);  Andre Pluess (sound);  and Shawn Sagady (projections).   Music performed by Tessa Brinckman, Ronnie Malley, and Michal Palzewicz

Cast:  Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Gina Daniels, Richard Howard, Cristofer Jean, Emily Sophia Knapp, Vin Kridakorn, Christopher Livingston, Tanya Thai McBride, Lisa Tejero, Amy Kim Waschke, and Jack Willis

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

Details: The White Snake ends December 23, 2012. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Rhoda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances: Tuesday-Sunday, with matinee performances on weekends and additional matiness at 2 PM on Thursdays 11/29 and 12/13.  No performance Thanksgiving. Tickets: Tickets: $29-$99 call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at www.berkeleyrep.org

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

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November 21, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

God Bless us, everyone! A heartwarming performance of Dickens’ classic “Christmas Carol,” through December 24 at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Jacob Marley (A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, left) haunts Scrooge (James Carpenter) on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. The play runs through Christmas Eve. Photo: Kevin Berne

The holiday season for me means time spent with family and friends and getting back in touch with my “goodwill towards all” vibe.  Tuesday evening, after a romp through a bustling Union Square, I had the pleasure of attending A.C.T.’s “A Christmas Carol” and highly recommend this family-friendly classic for setting spirits right.  This classic and beloved tale of transformation just doesn’t get any better.  The performance (with intermission) runs two hours and the evening show begins an hour early at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day through Christmas Eve.  This makes it a doable evening outing for families with kids or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a long drive home.

 “A Christmas Carol” was written by Charles Dickens and published in somber Victorian-era Britain in December 1843, when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were just being introduced.  This was before Christmas became today’s highly commercial venture but also during a time when there wasn’t much gleeful celebration.  The novella was an instant hit, largely for its memorable characters and its realistic depictions of the hardships of the working class which people related to.  It also infused people with hope and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America during a stifling period.   It was pirated immediately and adapted to the stage and the rest is history.  Now in its 35thyear at ACT, the play is a cornerstone of ACT’s repertory and has become a holiday tradition for families all around the Bay Area.  Adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, and directed by Domenique Lozano, this version has been around since 2004 and has been performed over a thousand times and stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption. 

Ebenezer Scrooge (James Carpenter, right) scolds his overworked employee Bob Cratchit (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano) on Christmas Eve. Photo: Kevin Berne

 We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call which rings ever true today.  Rich Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy–not very loving, giving, or even friendly.  James Carpenter, now in his fifth year in this role, doesn’t flinch from playing Scrooge’s harsh sides to the hilt but he also shows us a man who is completely and tragically unaware of how stuck and disagreeable he has become.  In Northern CA, we all know what happens when there’s no positive energy flow and Scrooge embodies the big “NO” with every ounce of his being.  

By contrast, impoverished Bob Cratchit, A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano, who is Scrooge’s clerk and whipping boy hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources– a true heart of gold- and a large loving family.  Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by Felciano whose radiance is matched by Delia MacDougall’s portrayal of his equally good-hearted wife, Anne Cratchit.  The Cratchit’s material hardship makes the wealthy Scrooge seem all the more despicable, even pitiable, because he cannot enjoy or share the massive fortune he has amassed.   Dickens realized that if Scrooge’s

The dancing is delightful in A.C.T.'s "A Christmas Carol." The produce sellers (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell, right, and Cindy Goldfield) bring in the bounty of the season, including belly-dancing Turkish figs (on cart: Emily Spears, left, and Elsie Lipson). Photo: Kevin Berne.

imagination could be stimulated, it would be possible for him to wake up on Christmas morning an entirely new man and that’s the message of the play.  Scrooge’s remarkable transformation—ideological, ethical and emotional– is brought about by the visits of four ghosts on Christmas Eve—Jacob Marley (his former business partner) and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future.   At Tuesday’s press opening, the show was full of marvelous special effects associated with the visits of each of these ghosts who led Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life.  Jack Willis, who returns as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, set the pace by robustly rising from Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and warnings amidst clouds of smoke. The Ghost of Christmas Present, played delightfully by A.C.T.’s Omozé Idehenre, emerged in striated green velvet as a Bacchic spirit of abundance with lusty vibes.  

The Cratchit family toasts to Scrooge's health on Christmas in A.C.T.'s annual production of "A Christmas Carol," thorugh December 17, 2011. Photo: Kevin Berne

And then there’s Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, played wonderfully by young Graham Bennett.  When Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present, he learns just how ill Tim really is, and that Tim will die unless he receives treatment (which the family cannot afford due to Scrooge’s miserliness). When he’s next visited by The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, all he can see is Tim’s little wooden crutch because Tim has died.  This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform which begins from the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning and shocks his cleaning lady Mrs. Dilber (Sharon Lockwood channeling Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara ) by thanking her, paying her generously and giving her the holidays off.

A reformed Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) celebrates the season with his nephew, Fred (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Jason Frank, far left), Fred’s wife, Mary (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Maggie Leigh, second from left), and the Cratchits: Bob (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano), Anne (Delia MacDougall), and Tiny Tim (Graham Bennett). Photo: Kevin Berne.

Val Caniparoli’s choreography is fantastic—lots of lighthearted dancing and movement that show off the period costumes designed for the production by Beaver Bauer of Teatro ZinZanni.  Dickens’s lovely descriptions of the abundance of Christmas bounty are staged creatively at the start of Act 2 as “The Waltz of the Opulent Fruit,” with six charming young Bay Area actors taking on the roles of dancing French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions.  The production will infuse one and all with holiday cheer and is highly recommended for families and children of all ages.

Details:  American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.

7 p.m.: December 20, 21, 22, 23

5:30 p.m.: December 18

2 p.m.: December 21, 22, 23, 24

1 p.m.: December 18

Run-time: Two hours including one intermission. Tickets: $15-$105, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415) 749-2228.  For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Pinter’s “The Homecoming” at San Francisco’s A.C.T. is still pathologically disturbing after 47 years, runs through March 27, 2011

 

Written in 1964, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was revolutionary in its exploration of the dark and dysfunctional side of family and marriage.  The original Broadway production won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play and its 40th anniversary Broadway production at the Cort Theatre was nominated for a 2008 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play.”   Now at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre), The Homecoming is a must-see for its superb acting, anchored by A.C.T. core actors René Augesen as Ruth and Jack Willis as Max the family patriarch.  And while it’s no longer the cutting- edge provocateur it once was, it is one of the most profoundly disturbing and exceptional portraits of a family to be found.  That’s because in the play’s near half decade of existence, our society has evolved to the point where we can recognize bits of ourselves in these wounded and intriguing characters and admit they embody a primal darkness that lies in all of us.  We’ve almost caught up with Pinter.

Lenny (Andrew Polk) puts on an aggressive front for his brother’s wife, Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen). Photo by Kevin Berne

The Homecoming is the story of a long absent son, Teddy (Anthony Fusco) who shows up in the middle of the night at his family home in North London with his wife, Ruth (René Augesen).  Teddy, a philosophy professor in the Midwest, seems to have little in common with the working-class relatives he left behind: Max, his father, (a butcher)(Jack Willis) and his younger brother Sam (a driver)(Kenneth Walsh) and Max’s two grown sons who still live at home, Lenny (pimp)(Andrew Polk) and Joey, the youngest (a boxer)(Adam O’Byrne).  They are all what a therapist might call trigger happy–constantly warring, trying to one up each other as they act out an ingrained pattern of lobbing hurtful responses back and forth.  Anything and everything is up for grabs—they fight over a cheese roll as passionately as they discuss philosophy, constantly vying for power.  As soon as Ruth enters the picture, they all compete for her attention. 

In Harold Pinter's The Homecoming at A.C.T. though March 27, 2011, Max (A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, left) and his sons, Joey (Adam O’Byrne, second from right) and Lenny (Andrew Polk, right), have unexpected plans for Ruth (A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen). Photo by Kevin Berne.

By the second act, Ruth, who was initially quiet, grows misogynistically pathological and cranks her own game into high gear, ultimately calling the shots in the family.  Augesen laces every word and gesture with ambiguity, hauntingly alluding to Ruth sexual past.  It’s a curious experience to watch a family implode before your eyes and at the same time to be wondering what it would be like to be any of them, as repulsive as each of them are. 

Acclaimed theatrical designer Daniel Ostling’s stage set, with its inward tilted walls, vertigo-inducing wooden staircase and stark lighting enhances the feeling of suffocating oppression within the family.  Thick clouds of fragrant cigar smoke and evocative jazz frame many of the conversations while Alex Jeager’s costumes for Ruth, particularly a form-fitting red silk dress, aid her in stealing power from right under the noses of these men.

Details: The Homecoming plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through March 27, 2011. Tickets ($10-$85) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: God Bless us, everyone! A heartwarming performance of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” through December 24 at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre)

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (A.C.T. core acting company member Jack Willis, left) haunts Scrooge (James Carpenter) on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The holiday season for me means time spent with family and friends and getting back in touch with my “goodwill towards all” vibe.  Tuesday evening, after a romp through a bustling and very commercial Union Square, I had the pleasure of attending A.C.T.’s “A Christmas Carol” and highly recommend this family-friendly classic for setting spirits right.  The performance (with intermission) runs two hours and the evening show begins an hour early at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day.  This makes it a doable evening outing for families with kids or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a long drive home.

 “A Christmas Carol” was written by Charles Dickens and published in somber Victorian-era Britain in December 1843, when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were just being introduced.  This was before Christmas became today’s highly commercial venture but also during a time when there wasn’t much gleeful celebration.  The novella was an instant hit, largely for its memorable characters and its realistic depictions of the hardships of the working class which people related to.  It also infused people with hope and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America during a stifling period.   It was pirated immediately and adapted to the stage and the rest is history.  Now in its 34th year at A.C.T., the play is a cornerstone of A.C.T.’s repertory and has become a holiday tradition for families all around the Bay Area.  Adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, and directed by Domenique Lozano, this version has been around since 2004 and has been performed over a thousand times and stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption.

Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) is touched by Christmas memories of his younger self (Tony Sinclair) and his sister, Fan (Emma Rose Draisin). Photo: Kevin Berne.

 We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call and it rings ever true today.  Rich Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy–not very loving, giving, or even friendly.  James Carpenter, now in his fifth year in this role, doesn’t flinch from playing Scrooge’s harsh sides to the hilt but he also shows us a man who is completely and tragically unaware of how stuck and disagreeable he has become.  In Northern CA, we all know what happens when there’s no flow and Scrooge embodies the big “NO” with every ounce of his being.   

By contrast, impoverished Bob Cratchit, who is Scrooge’s clerk and whipping boy, hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources– a true heart of gold- and a large loving family.  Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by Nicholas Pelczar whose radiance is matched by Delia MacDougall’s portrayal of his equally good-hearted wife, Anne Cratchit.  The Cratchit’s material hardship makes the wealthy Scrooge seem all the more despicable, even pitiable, because he cannot enjoy or share the massive fortune he has amassed.   Dickens realized that if Scrooge’s imagination could be stimulated, it would be possible for him to wake up on Christmas morning an entirely new man and that’s the message of the play.  Scrooge’s remarkable transformation—ideological, ethical and emotional– is brought about by the visits of four ghosts on Christmas Eve—Jacob Marley (his former business partner) and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future.   At Tuesday’s press opening, the show was full of marvelous special effects associated with the visits of each of these ghosts who led Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life.  Jack Willis, who returns as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, set the pace by robustly rising from Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and warnings amidst clouds of smoke.  The Ghost of Christmas Present, played delightfully by A.C.T.’s Steven Anthony Jones, emerged in striated green velvet as a jovial and lusty Bacchic spirit of abundance.  

And then there’s Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, played wonderfully by young Sadie Eve Scott.  When Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present, he learns just how ill Tim really is, and that Tim will die unless he receives treatment (which the family cannot afford due to Scrooge’s miserliness). When he’s next visited by The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, all he can see is Tim’s little wooden crutch because Tim has died.  This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform which begins from the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning and shocks his cleaning lady Mrs. Dilber (Sharon Lockwood channeling Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara ) by thanking her, paying her generously and giving her the holidays off.

A reformed Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) celebrates the season with his nephew, Fred (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Patrick Lane, right), Fred’s wife, Mary (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Jenna Johnson, second from right), and the Cratchits: Bob (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program alumnus Nicholas Pelczar), Anne (Delia MacDougall), and Tiny Tim (Sadie Eve Scott). Photo: Kevin Berne.

Val Caniparoli’s choreography is fantastic—lots of lighthearted dancing and movement that show off the period costumes designed for the production by Beaver Bauer of Teatro ZinZanni.  Dickens’s lovely descriptions of the abundance of Christmas bounty are staged creatively at the start of Act 2 as “The Waltz of the Opulent Fruit,” with six charming young Bay Area actors taking on the roles of dancing French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions. 

 

Details:  American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  

Remaining Performances–

7 p.m.: December 10, 11, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23

5:30 p.m.: December 12, 19

2 p.m.: December  9, 11, 21, 22, 23, 24

1 p.m.: December 12, 19

Run-time: Two hours including one 20 minute intermission.

Tickets: $15-$102, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415) 749-2228.  For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theatre Review: ACT’s “The Tosca Project” – a dance journey through time toasting the beloved Café Tosca

The three original owners (from left: Nol Simonse, Kyle Schaefer, Peter Anderson) celebrate the opening of Tosca Cafe in 1919. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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 Bartender (Jack Willis, right) remembers his younger self (Kyle Schaefer, center) and the his long-lost love that he left behind in Italy (Sabina Allemann). Photo by Kevin Berne.

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 Immigrant (Rachel Ticotin) brings a piece of her Russian homeland into the bar with her. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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.  

A ballet diva (Sabina Allemann) enchants a businessman (Peter Anderson) in Tosca Cafe. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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

The members of the ensemble of The Tosca Project (from left: Sara Hogrefe, Kyle Schaefer, Lorena Feijoo, Pascal Molat, Peter Anderson, Nol Simonse). Photo by Kevin Berne.

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

June 17, 2010 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment