American Conservatory Theatre
“The Tosca Project”
ACT Theatre on Geary Street
San Francisco, California
19 June 2010
By Catherine Pawlick
Tracing the history of San Francisco’s landmark Tosca Café from 1919 to present day, American Conservatory Theatre’s latest production, “The Tosca Project,” is an engaging 90-minute spectacle that reveals a diverse range of dancing genres across the decades. Illustrating its story line through movement, “Tosca Project” is a bright new take on San Francisco history that delivers an emotional experience through the themes of love and loss. Aided by a stellar cast that includes both A.C.T. actors and principal dancers from the San Francisco Ballet, “Tosca Project” combines the best of both acting and dancing.
Do not be fooled by the billing – “The Tosca Project” is not a play. In fact, it seems that less than 50 words are spoken throughout the performance, except for a small reading from a book near the end. The sparse verbage allows the viewer to indulge in the visual delights of a 1920s Charleston, or 1980s disco moves, while picking up the subtle nuances of glance and gesture. Recorded music shifts with each scene, as we meet the characters who are paramount to Tosca’s history: the Immigrant, played by Rachel Ticotin, later serves as the image of longtime bar owner Armen Bali, one of Rudolf Nureyev’s closest friends and supporters. The Immigrant’s early entry to the café prompts memories of her homeland through a matrioshka doll hidden in her purse, and here the real dancing begins: Anna Pavlova’s “The Dying Swan” is performed with ethereal grace by Lorena Feijoo, and Pascale Molat appears the spitting image of Vaslav Nijinsky in the costume for the once scandalous “Afternoon of a Faun.”
From there we continue forward through time: Prohibition, and then World War II. Here we witness a touching episode depicted by Feijoo and Molat as the sailor going off to war and his girlfriend stuck back home. The two lovers nuzzle at a bar table before he leaves. The later return of the sailors reveals the ravages of post-war shell shock in Molat’s shaky hands and blank stare. Feijoo attempts to put his arm around her, and sway to the music as they once did before guiding him out the door.
Every character onstage has a story to tell. Jack Willis’ Bartender remains a constant through every scene. The ghost of his own lost love, danced by Sabina Allemann, appears in between scenes, barefoot in a red dress. The bartenders are a snappy bunch, and the group of women, whether in flower power dresses or Marilyn Monroe-type glamour gowns, illustrate the musical selections with precision and sensitivity.
Hints of humor are also on offer. To the background of the Shades scene entrance music from the ballet “La Bayadere,” Sabina Allemann etches Natalia Makarova’s overdone entrance to the Tosca café in true Russian grandeur. Her attempts to entice businessman Edward Karkar lighten the mood while retaining accuracy for Tosca’s role in their later marriage.
Perhaps most poignant of all is Pascale Molat’s reappearance as Rudolf Nureyev, first flirting with gay male disco dancers, and then faltering from great leaps as he grows more ill. Molat deserves an award for the emotion and authenticity invested in this rendition of the famous dancer.
In short, “Tosca Project” is a must for ballet-lovers in the Bay Area. It runs through June 17.
Author, "Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition" (available on amazon.com)