Excavating an American Cafe: American Conservatory Theater and San Francisco Ballet Dance around History in the Tosca Project

By Sack, Daniel | American Theatre, May-June 2010 | Go to article overview

Excavating an American Cafe: American Conservatory Theater and San Francisco Ballet Dance around History in the Tosca Project


Sack, Daniel, American Theatre


IT'S THE WAY THE SUNLIGHT SLANTS ACROSS the bartop, bracketed by kettle-like steel vintage espresso machines at either end. It's the way the light catches on tumblers smudged with fingerprints and deepens in the red vinyl booths In the back room, still dark in the long, late afternoon. It's the way the present casts its glare on the remains of" the past--worn places where feet scuffed the checkerboard linoleum flooring, nicotine stains clinging to the ceiling from countless breathless nights.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

That's the way Carey Perloff describes the betwixt-and-between atmosphere of the Tosca Cafe, where an antique Wurlitzer cycles through Puccini's opera and America's iconic crooners, and the whole joint feels as if the mid-century San Francisco of noir fame were held in stasis. More the domain of bartender than barista, Tosca's signature drink--a coffee-less cappuccino (hot chocolate generously spiked with brandy)--attests to its Prohibition-era origins.

For the past 90-plus years, luminaries and stumbling denizens of North Beach, San Francisco, have passed their time (and, at times, passed out) on Tosca's barstools. Tales abound of film, opera and ballet stars frequenting the cafe, and the rich literary history of the city is deeply intertwined with the place; through the arched front window you can see Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore across Columbus Avenue. For Perloff, artistic director of the city's flagship American Conservatory Theater, "Tosca's story is the story of this city, the story of this century." But Tosca also resembles countless bars in cities across the country, places where a community comes together night after night to reflect on the day's events and where private stories are staged in public.

For the past three years, the cafe itself has become the protagonist in a devised performance piece called The Tosca Project that Perloff has been developing with an eclectic group of San Francisco-based artists. The piece follows the life of the cafe from its beginnings in 1919, when three Italian brothers opened the establishment, to the present day. Its current owner is the charismatic and larger-than-life Jeannette Etheredge, whose anecdotes pepper the latter half of the project.

In January '07, the group presented its first findings in an open rehearsal 's second space, Zeum. In October of that year a workshop version with costumes and sets was staged at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and occasional closed-door workshops have been held in the intervening time. The process will reach its culmination June 3-27 when the full production premieres as the final performance in ACT's '09-10 season.

The Tosca Project breaks new ground for ACT, teaming performers from its repertory company with artists from another of the city's storied institutions, the San Francisco Ballet. Actors dance alongside acting dancers, mixing physical theatre with ballet and social dance from the early part of the century. Perloff, now in her 17th season with ACT, co-directs with choreographer Val Caniparoli, who has been involved with San Francisco Ballet for more than 30 years. They come together--not for the first time (ACT's 2004 A Doll's Home and its 2005 and 2006 editions of A Christmas Carol featured choreography by Caniparoli)--as representatives of their fields, exploring a shared commitment to the narrative possibilities of physical gesture. And while recent seasons have showcased physical-theatre work by visiting companies (U.K.-based Kneehigh Theatre's version of Noel Coward's; Brief Encounter, with its blend of filmed and live movement, opened this season), this is the first time either company has produced a work of dance-theatre.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Caniparoli had been mulling over a ballet adaptation of Ettore Scola's 1983 film Le Bal when Perloff proposed that they collaborate on an investigation of the landmark North Beach cafe. …

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