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Review: A.C.T.’s heartwarming performance of Dickens’ holiday classic “Christmas Carol” through December 24 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter is Ebenezer Scrooge and Rebekah Brockman is the Ghost of Christmas Past, playing November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter is Ebenezer Scrooge and Rebekah Brockman is the Ghost of Christmas Past, who first appears on a swing. “A Christas Carol” runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Bah Humbug!  It’s time again for those immortal and endearing words.  With dozens of productions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” opening this holiday season,  one that really stands out in the Bay Area is A.C.T.’s (American Conservatory Theatre), which opened last Tuesday and runs through Christmas Eve.

Now in its 36th year at A.C.T.,  A Christmas Carol  is thoroughly enjoyable, offering fine acting, vivid characterizations, dazzling special effects, lush staging and beautiful period costumes.  Adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh in 2005, and directed by Domenique Lozano, with music by Karl Lundeberg, this lively version stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption but it has some updates and cast changes that keep it fresh.   The production runs two hours (with intermission) and the evening show begins an hour early, at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day through Christmas Eve.  Combine it with a walk through bustling and gorgeously lit Union Square en route to A.C.T.’s historic Geary Theatre and it’s a very doable evening outing for families or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a longer drive home.

We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call and it rings ever true today. Wealthy Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy.  “The only thing more ridiculous than Merry Christmas is falling in love!” sputters crotchety James Carpenter early in the play.  Carpenter, now in his 6th year in the role, keeps adding new layers of complexity to Scrooge.  This year, he plays him as a member of the 1 percent who is willfully and persistently ignorant to the suffering of his fellow human beings and who is completely unaware of how closed off, disagreeable and unkempt he has become over the years.

 By contrast, Bob Cratchit (Nick Pelczar), Scrooge’s overworked clerk, hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources—a heart of gold and a large loving family. Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by 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 shows not only Scrooge’s miserliness but also how it would come to ruin the lives his beloved sister’s descendants and harm his impoverished clerk’s family. While writing his classic, 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.

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Ruta) haunts Scrooge on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Ruta) haunts Scrooge on Christmas Eve to save his soul, warning him of the three other ghosts that will visit him. Photo: Kevin Berne

The visits of these ghosts, who lead Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life, represent the production’s most creative parts. Setting the bar for ghastly ghost behavior highlighted by special effects is the Ghost of Jacob Marley, played by Ken Ruta, who originated this role in the 2005 production. Amidst billowing clouds of colored smoke, he robustly pops out of the headboard of Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and issuing warnings and looking like death-warmed over with his crazy frizzed out hair.  Ruta replaces the revered Jack Willis who is over at Berkeley Rep playing a meddling Buddhist monk in Mary Zimmermann’s adaptation of The White Snake.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, is played humorously again by A.C.T.’s Omozé Idehenre who appears in striated green velvet as a Bacchic spirit of abundance.  One of the production’s unique touches is that the ghosts are, at times, suspended above Scrooge on swings, adding a playful touch.

And gauging’s the Bay Area’s love of puppets, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is spot on—a giant black bat-like puppet apparition that fills the stage and moves its appendages in and out as if it could readily swallow someone up.  It also serves as a screen. As projections of the harrowing future that await Scrooge flash rapidly before him, Scrooge gets his final wake-up call.

Carmen Steele is Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, and has a wonderful stage presence.  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, Tim’s little wooden crutch is all that is shown because Tim has died.  This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning. And change he does!   He gives his cleaning lady, Mrs. Dilber, a real jolt by thanking her, paying her generously, and giving her the holidays off.  Sharon Lockwood, who brilliantly channels Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara, makes Mrs. Dilber one of the most endearing characters of all.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter (L) is Ebenezer Scrooge and Carmen Steele (R) is Tiny Tim Cratchit.  Runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

In A.C.T.’s annual holiday favorite, “A Christmas Carol,” James Carpenter (L) is Ebenezer Scrooge and Carmen Steele (R) is Tiny Tim Cratchit. Runs November 30–December 24, 2012, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Val Caniparoli’s choreography, as always, is fantastic.  There’s lots of lighthearted and fluid dancing which showcases Beaver Bauer’s beautiful period costumes and Caniparoli has interjected some new funk and spunk into the scary ghosts.  Caniparoli, who is currently dancing the role of the toymaker, Drosselmeyer, in SF Ballet’s treasured Nutcracker, really understands how much enjoyment an audience gets from the gestures communicated through dance. Under his direction, the lively ball at the Fezziwig Warehouse, with its new cartoon-like sets, was delightful and Act II’s lively “Waltz of the Opulent Fruit” was charmingly executed by six young Bay Area actors who had been transformed into plump and colorful French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions.  Their festive jig, which showcases composer Karl Lundeberg’s talent, is always an audience favorite.

The message is profoundly clear in this play of new beginnings: generosity comes in many forms and its rewards are priceless.  Scrooge doesn’t so much need to celebrate Christmas (but when he finally does, he does it admirably) as to open his heart which enables to him to both give and receive…which is the one of the joys of Christmas. 

The Dickens novella that inspired it all is at the Morgan Library: “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 infused people with hope during a stifling period and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America. When it was first published, its 6,000 copies printed up in time for Christmas, sold out. Because Dickens had selected lavish drawings in red and green ink by John Leech, one of the Britain’s best illustrators, the book was a financial bust. It went on to become a literary staple, so Dickens fared well but it was also pirated immediately after publication. It was shortly adapted to the stage and the rest is history.

The financier J.P. Morgan bought the manuscript in 1890 and it has been housed at 225 Madison Avenue, in Pierpont Morgan’s historic Library.  The 66 page handwritten manuscript, written in large scribbling cursive in just 6 days, is exhibited each holiday season at The Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.  As a matter of expedience, only one page is put on view each year, under glass. This year, page 61 is on display, which is the first page of the final Stave (Stave V), titled “The End of It.”  This is the scene in which Scrooge, awaking after the visitation of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, celebrates his reprieve. (Click here to be directed to that page.) The entire original manuscript, along with a very useful audio option that allows readers to hear a page read aloud is available online here courtesy of the Morgan Library.

Run-time A.C.T.’s  A Christmas Carol:  Two hours including one 15 minute intermission.

Cast:  James Carpenter (Ebenezer Scrooge), Ken Ruta (Ghost of Christmas Past), Nick Pelcar (Bob Cratchit, Delia MacDougall (Anne Cratchit), Jarion Monroe (Mr. Fezziwig), Sharon Lockwood (Mrs. Fezziwig), Omozé Idehenre (Ghost of Christmas Present).  The adult cast also includes Cindy Goldfield, Howard Swain, Arwen Anderson, Stephanie DeMott.

The Christmas Carol cast also includes six third-year students from the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program, many of whom traditionally receive their Actors’ Equity cards as a result of their participation in A Christmas Carol —Rebekah Brockman, Raymond Castelán, Allegra Rose Edwards, Nick Steen, Tyee J. Tilghman and Titus Tompkins. And a record 27 young actors from the A.C.T. Young Conservatory (YC) are participating in the production—Graham Bennett, Frank Demma, Ian DeVaynes, Chloe Durham, Jack Estes, Dashiell Ferrero, Elke Janssen, Leo Jergovic, Louis Kehoe, Sydney Kistler, Shalan Lee, Madelyn Levine, Elsie Lipson, Katerine Liviakis, Sarah Magen, Timothy Marston, Rachel Metzger, Kai Nau, Evelyn Ongpin, Gavin Pola, Kennedy Roberts, Lindsay Sohn, Carmen Steele, Sasha Steiner, Emma Sutherland, Samuel Sutton, and Seth Weinfield.

Creative Team:  John Arnone (set design), Beaver Bauer (costume design), Karl Lundeberg (original music), Val Caniparoli (choreography), Nancy Schertler (lighting design), and Jake Rodriguez (sound design), and Robert Rutt (musical direction).

Details: A Christmas Carol runs through December 24, 2012 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances:

7 p.m.: December 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22

5:30 p.m.: December 16, 23

2 p.m.: December 12, 15, 21, 22

1 p.m.: December 16, 23, 24

Tickets: $20-$95, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415)439-2473.  For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted.  Performances sell out quickly.  Act now for the best seats !

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December 10, 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: 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