“Everybody dance!” And dance they did. Over seven decades and with no shortage of shots in the cozy North Beach Tosca Cafe—even during prohibition. The Tosca Project is billed as A.C.T.’s valentine to San Francisco, and I could not think of a simpler, more accurate way to describe this emotional, visceral show. It’s visually arresting, and unlike anything I’ve seen in a while. Staged by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli, we’re treated to a unique dance-theater presentation, including principal dancers from the San Francisco Ballet alongside a strong cast, who likewise perform mostly through movement, with a pinch of dialog.
The bartender (Jack Willis) fled Italy, leaving behind his wife. Before they can reconcile, she dies, and her ghost, twirling in a red dress amidst the glow of the Tosca Cafe marquee, forever haunts him. Meanwhile, the business grows. Patrons stop in for a quick pick-me-up. Mostly coffees at first. But soon, it’s the special drinks served during prohibition that keeps everyone hopping at the speakeasy. Friendships are made. Hearts broken. And memories stirred. And through it all, the jukebox in the corner continues to belt out the tunes of the times.
A confession here. I hadn’t heard of the Tosca Cafe before this production. Yes, I know: how pedestrian! It’s true: I live in San Jose, and also own at least one pair of Dockers. But let me humbly suggest that going into a show cold, not knowing anything about the premise can often make for an unexpected turn. In this case, I was moved beyond expectation. It was an emotional experience; the dancing, the music and the set all combined to transform my headspace for ninety minutes on a sunny afternoon inside the A.C.T.
The Tosca Project is most assuredly art.
It makes several of the shows I had seen earlier in the week seem shrill by comparison. In place of dialog, a series of vignettes, accompanied by dance numbers, grace the stage, conveying a sense of time and place. As the audience, we’re seated at the back of the cafe watching San Francisco grow up. Times change; from the roaring 20’s to post World War II jubilation to flower power and Vietnam, and then disco and the modernization of human communication. The cafe, with its three small tables, invitingly grand bar and jukebox, remains the same through it all.
Costumes (Robert de La Rose) are restrained in their elegance, until, of course, we get to the 1970’s and then all bets are off. The lighting (Robert Wierzel) is also notable, bathing the cafe in red during moments of anguished memory, and then sparkling as the joint breaks out the Charleston. Darron L. West’s sound design is so vibrant and authentic, I leaned over to ask Loni if there was a live orchestra off-stage.
Theater at the A.C.T. is often T-h-e-a-t-e-r. Classic and majestic, if not at times a tad cold and distant. With Tosca, it’s as if an artistic tidal wave swept across Union Square and crashed down on the A.C.T.’s expansive stage. The passion and heart are unmistakable.
Carey Perloff and her team took over three years to bring The Tosca Project to life. The process involved collection over 100 hours of interviews with a variety of individuals, multiple workshops, and I’m guessing even a Dubonnet Cocktail or two.
Even if you’ve never been to the actual cafe (which still exists today in North Beach), you’ll undoubtedly connect with the emotions, and the historical events that color the lives of those that pass through its swinging saloon doors.
The Tosca Project
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), San Francisco
4.5 out of 5 stars
Created and Staged by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli
Starring Jack Willis, Rachel Ticotin, Gregory Wallace
Through June 27, 2010