Dancing Down the Years

The culmination of American Conservatory Theater’s season, the world premiere of The Tosca Project has been a long time coming.  Cocreated and staged by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli and based loosely around historic North Beach nightspot the Tosca Cafe, the ambitious piece has been in the works for four years.

Sabina Allemann and Peter Anderson in The Tosca Project. Photo by Kevin Berne

The timing makes a lot of sense, actually, as the style of the dance-theater piece is obviously influenced by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling’s wordless adaptation of The Overcoat that played ACT as a visiting production in 2005. The Tosca Project even features the lead performer of The Overcoat, the marvelous physical comedian Peter Anderson.

Now, I don’t really know anything about Tosca.  I drank there once, but it struck me as a place where people with too much money went to be seen by each other, and the photo spreads of hobnobbing socialites in the Chronicle’s “Swells” column (or as I used to like to call it, the “first against the wall when the revolution comes” section) did nothing to dispel that impression.

There are times in The Tosca Project where it feels like it might be helpful to have a sense of the bar’s history, such as what some abrupt fallings-out are about, but they don’t seem to amount to much. The moments the the viewer actually cares about are much more immediate than any overarching story, and are crystal clear to the point of universality.

There’s very, very little talking in the piece, and what there is tends to be for flavor rather than actually moving the story along. The narrative, such as it is, is told almost entirely through movement and images, some opaque and others crystal clear. Bathed in red light, a woman in a red dress (Sabina Allemann) lip-synchs to a dramatic scene from Tosca as she dives from atop the bar. The three Italian founders of Tosca Cafe whirl around in an amusing dance to a Tin Hat Trio tango as they set up the place for business circa 1919.

They practically drag a passing woman off the street to be their first customer, a seemingly introverted Russian woman (Rachel Ticotin) who soon becomes a regular and eventually runs the place. But the first thing she does is take out some Russian nesting dolls as dancers enter behind her dressed as classic Russian ballet stars in their seminal roles: Anna Pavlova  (Lorena Feijoo) as the Dying Swan as Vaslav Nijinsky as the Faun.

What Nijinsky and Pavlova have to do Tosca the bar is probably nothing at all, but they help establish the character’s Russianness. (I didn’t get it first, but it’s pretty obvious in retrospect when she finally speaks in a Russian accent about an hour later.) And of course they’re very significant figures to the San Francisco Ballet dancers involved in the piece, so in that sense the homage makes perfect sense.

Much later in the piece the Loma Prieta earthquake takes place, which seems sort of useful as a way of marking time but basically a non-event as far as the story of the bar goes. But the inclusion of the quake makes much more sense if you reflect that it may not have been significant for Tosca, but it sure was for ACT, whose theater was severely damaged and closed for more than five years for renovations. In a labor of love such as this piece seems to be, it’s best to wink at these little indulgences.

Douglas W. Schmidt’s set nicely evokes the bar interior, with an old-fashioned espresso machine and jukebox and the Tosca sign as the only view visible outside the window. Robert Wierzel’s lighting creates some striking effects, including a rainfall that’s more evocative than literal-minded, accentuated by the more realistic scene-setting of Darron L West’s sound design.

As one might hope, the dancing is fabulous, from ballet to the Charleston to disco and everything in between. The music is a delicious mix of both period recordings that help guide us forward in time, from Rosemary Clooney and Charlie Parker to the Cyrkle and Sylvester, plus much more recent recordings like the Tin Hat tunes that fit beautifully into the tone of the piece. Robert de La Rose’s fashionable costumes capture each era unmistakably while keeping them largely just short of caricature (coming closest to that line in the flamboyant ‘50s and ‘60s).

Prohibition comes and goes, with two of the initial partners storming off in a drunken huff somewhere along the way, and the mustachioed remaining owner (Kyle Schaefer) is soon replaced by ACT core company member Jack Willis as an older and more world-weary version of the same guy.

Fellow company member Gregory Wallace soon shows up as a fugitive hiding out and pretending to be an employee after a shocking accident that’s played out in a heartbreaking dance. His character is referred to as the Musician in the program, presumably because he’s carrying a violin case when he shows up, but aside from a certain hipster swagger that’s the last we hear of any musical leanings. He’s taken in as an actual employee and stays there for at least 70 years, his tragic history seemingly soon forgotten.

The Bartender, on the other hand, is haunted. Haunted by Tosca. The woman in red continues to appear and dance around the founder periodically throughout the piece, usually when he listens to opera on the old jukebox. Whether she represents longing for the old country, a lost love, or just that he’s really, really into Tosca is unclear.

It’s best not to take anything here too literally, or else everyone on staff would be well over 100 years old by the time the play ended. No danger of the audience coming out like Rip Van Winkle, however—surprisingly for a piece that covers so much ground with such an excess of style at a theater fond of three-hour shows, they keep it to a trim 90 minutes.

The bar is beset by flappers, sailors, beatniks, then flower children and Vietnam vets, then gay disco dancers and an ailing Rudolf Nureyev, feelingly embodied by Pascal Molat. The beat era so vital to North Beach history is captured in Rexroth and Ferlinghetti poems.  Finally it becomes the recognizable haunt of the endlessly yapping, smoking and swilling upwardly mobile types of the ‘90s, clownishly repeating the same cycle of actions in an amusing dance just before closing time.

But the real meat of the piece isn’t in the slim arc of the piece, the changing of hands and the passage of time. It’s in little vignettes like that of the Musician’s back story.  Pascal Molat and Lorena Feijoo dance a touching duet as a sailor off to World War II and his girlfriend, followed by the long wait and difficult reunion.  There’s an adorable wooing dance between Allemann as an elegant woman and Anderson as a hilariously awkward businessman. It’s in these moments that the piece truly transcends itself and becomes sublime.

The Tosca Project
Through July 3
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #66 of 2010, attended June 9.

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