Multi-Disciplinary 'Tosca' Arrives After Four Years in the Making

Photo: Down the hatch. A.C.T.'s 'The Tosca Project' spans the colorful characters and history of San Francisco with both dramatic and musical bravado – and occasionally with mixed results.
Kevin Berne/Courtesy
Down the hatch. A.C.T.'s 'The Tosca Project' spans the colorful characters and history of San Francisco with both dramatic and musical bravado – and occasionally with mixed results.


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Last week the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco presented the culmination of a four-year collaboration between Artistic Director Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli of the San Francisco Ballet. The famous Tosca Café, a San Francisco landmark since the Roaring '20s, provides the inspiration for this innovative new piece of dance-theatre. "The Tosca Project" lives up to A.C.T.'s long-standing reputation as an institution unafraid of artistic challenge and risk.

This piece takes the audience on a journey through the entire lifespan of this iconic café. The doors open in 1919, just as prohibition arrives, turning the nation's bars into coffee houses. However, the bartender continues to serve smuggled liquor in his establishment, disguised as cappuccino.

The Bartender's character possesses a mysterious past, hints and echoes of which pervade the entire play through glimpses of scenes and music from Puccini's "Tosca." The unfolding mystery of his tragic love story provides a narrative thread to a piece that is otherwise in constant flux.

Time whirls by as jukebox songs and radio broadcasts usher in the passing decades. World War II arrives, bringing with it young sailors and their sweethearts. Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat dance a truly beautiful goodbye number as young lovers separated by the war. The '40s give way to the greasers of the '50s, then to the Beat poets and Flower Children of the '60s and so on.

One of the most memorable scenes is a hilariously self-deprecating look at the '90s in which all the customers dance manically around the stage, tapping feverishly away at their computers and palm-pilots and wandering about in complete personal isolation with briefcases over their heads.

But though the piece is well conceived and the dancing is indisputably exquisite, this parade of the decades is nothing new, and the steady predictability does become a little wearisome. The innovation of style does not seem to extend to content, and there is at least one too many cultural clichés in play.

However, the actors and dancers create something undeniably beautiful to watch. One should not look for too much hidden meaning in the narrative, anymore than one should look to musical notes in their changing harmonies to create literal meaning.

The real fun lies in the direct, if somewhat esoteric, references to notable San Francisco personalities. The Tosca Café has remained, through the decades, a center of local culture and, perhaps more importantly, counterculture. Over the years it has gained the affection and loyalty of such famous patrons as infamous topless dancer Carol Doda, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and ex-patriot Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

An uproarious scene near the end depicts the real life meeting of dancer Natalia Makarova and her husband Edward Karkar, which occurred in the Tosca Café. Sabina Alleman and Peter Anderson are sensational in this alternately hilarious and sultry duet.

Native San Franciscans will enjoy all the little details and allusions that other audience members might miss. However, it is entirely possible to enjoy the beauty of this piece without the benefit of background knowledge. The profound harmony between subject and setting creates a comfortable "feel-good" atmosphere in the theatre. The piece celebrates San Francisco through lens of one of its most iconic establishments. A.C.T. has created a visual love letter to the Tosca Café.


Enjoy a "cappuccino" or two with Gwen at [email protected]



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