Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cheers to ACT's Tosca Project

San Francisco Chronicle
Catherine Bigelow
June 11, 2010

When I first began frequenting Tosca Cafe (which, for the record, shall be noted only as, "an undisclosed number of years"), my favorite seat in this storied bar was a stool in the far right-hand corner just as you pass through that joint's double-swinging doors.

Author-playwright Armistead Maupin (left) with his husband, Christopher Turner and his sister, Jane Maupin Yates, at the Geary Theater.
From this perch at the mahogany plank, I would sip a post-work cocktail in quiet bliss with a lazy eye Focused on the bar's arched glass windows.

Outside on Columbus Avenue the sidewalk filled with a colorful swirl of office-exiting cube-dwellers and early-evening seekers of sybaritic delights.

The French refer to this time of day as, l'heure bleue -- that magical flash of twilight which is neither day nor evening. A moment when possibilities seem infinite. And any number of things -- friends, strangers, politics, love, drama, literature or movie stars -- may push through the doors of this historic North Beach boite.

Tosca Project sponsor Lucy Jewett and Tosca Project choreographer Val Caniparoli

That same sense of possibility pervaded Wednesday at the Geary Theater during the American Conservatory Theater world premiere of The Tosca Project.

Created by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff and S.F. Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli, this beautifully-rendered theater-dance piece is set within Tosca Cafe's sepia-toned walls (skillfully re-imagined at the Geary by Douglas Schmidt) and magically unfolds like an Edward Hopper  painting come to life.

The evening kicked-off at the St. Francis Hotel where stalwart ACT supporters delighted in a delish dinner, organized by ACT Trustee Priscilla Geeslin, at Restaurant Michael Mina which now features a handy pre-fixe dinner-theater menu.

"Val and I have been working on The Tosca Project for almost four years," joked Perloff, toasting her artistic comrade. "It was starting to feel almost longer than my marriage!"

The Project is expertly played by S.F. Ballet Principal dancers Pascal Molat and Lorena Feijoo, and former S.F. Ballet principal dancer Sabina Allemann, who've joined forces with celebrated actors Peter Anderson  and Rachel Ticotin, as well as ACT company members Gregory Wallace and Jack Willis.

"It's wonderful to experience two of San Francisco's great cultural institutions working together," enthused ACT Trustee Carlie Wilmans, who serves as a Tosca Project Executive producer.

Artistic schedules aside, the Project would never have gotten off the ground without support from commissioning sponsors Lucy Jewett, Susan Van Wagner and Kathleen Scutchfield, whom Perloff now fondly calls, "The Three Muses."

Perloff also paid loving tribute to Tosca Cafe owner Jeannette Etheredge and her late mother, celebrated restaurateur and balletomane Armen Baliantz.

"One night, Val and I were sitting in Tosca with Jeannette, talking about how we'd always wanted to create a full-length piece together," explained Perloff. "Suddenly it hit us -- between Jeannette's great stories about the bar and long friendship with Rudolf Nureyev  -- what better setting than Tosca in which to tell the story of all that is special about San Francisco."

Tosca Cafe opened in 1919. Through dance, music and costume, The Tosca Project spans the city's 20th-century cultural, political and societal history (sailors, beatniks, hippies, yuppies, grunge, techies) during the bar's 90 years in business.

The set renders the environs of Tosca in loving detail: the precise squeak of its swinging doors; the white-coated barmen; the exact font of the bar's iconic neon sign; the glow of the old-fashioned, aria-laden jukebox; the authentic ring of, possibly, the last public pay phone in EssEff; the roped-off entrance to the bar's elusive back room.

All of which is framed by a shroud of shifting fog which floats offstage outside the bar's recreated arched windows.

Perloff has been delighted by audience response. Many members of which have expressed to her that certain pieces reminded them of their own lives.

"One man told me that the World War II segment where the men ship off to Pearl Harbor was his story," said Perloff. "While that may be true, I teased that he couldn't possibly have been as handsome as the sailor played by Pascal Molat!"

Molat deftly plays nine different characters throughout the Project's various segments and describes the experience as, "enriching" because during same amount of time in a ballet he typically only plays one role.

"This piece allows me to act more. Fortunately I don't have to speak much," joked Molat, later at Tosca Cafe. "For me, it's all about the dancing. But working with these wonderful actors I became an observer to their world. We speak a different vocabulary but through texture we work towards the same goal of artistry."

All too soon, that final hour of "Last call," descended upon Tosca's famed red banquettes.

The hiss from the large espresso machines atop the bar ceased. Stools were re-aligned like a row of sentinels. The arias from the jukebox fell silent.

And the clutch of us remaining pushed our way through Tosca's swinging doors, out onto the sidewalk and into the cold, dark of early morning.

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