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July 2010

Scene4 Magazine - "The Tosca Project" reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig July 2010 -

by Catherine Conway Honig

American Conservatory Theater's recent production of "The Tosca Project" was created through an expansive collaboration by ACT's artistic director, Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli along with ballet dancers, actors, historians, dramaturges and a crew of designers. Given the extravagance of this four-year process, especially during such difficult economic times for the arts, the hopes and expectations for the world premiere were high. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the result. Hard as the performers tried, and as beautiful as some of their performances were, they could not redeem this ill-conceived and misguided project.

The original idea might have been the essential problem that doomed the project from the outset. Perloff set out to commission a work based on an old and somewhat legendary café and bar called Tosca in San Francisco's North Beach. It is unclear why anyone thought this idea could be developed into anything more substantial than the resulting piece of provincial kitsch. It left me wondering if there was more to the story of the work's genesis that could help explain the confusion. An anonymous donor? A drunken promise?

Perloff can be praised for her leadership in maintaining ACT during these challenging times but creativity on the stage is not among her talents. Her directorial efforts tend to be static and academic. One feels the effort she expends in staging a play as if she cannot get out of the way and leave the actors to do what they do best. Instead one senses the volumes of instructions she has heaped upon the stage in place of inspiration, creativity and emotion. In fact, even motion is usually missing from her productions. Actors stand in place delivering their lines as if shouting from behind lecterns.


Val Caniparoli, by contrast, is a master at making a stage hum with exciting movement. To her credit, Perloff has learned to lean on him to breathe life into her productions including, most recently, "A Doll's House," "A Christmas Carol," and "'Tis a Pity She's a Whore." Caniparoli's original choreographic creations are widely known and performed by more than 35 dance companies throughout the world. As a dancer, he began with San Francisco Ballet over 30 years ago and continues to perform in character roles such as Juliet's father, Lord Capulet,  in "Romeo and Juliet." A tall and graceful man, his stage presence remains a threat to the rest of the cast. What an inspiration to see someone continue to thrive in all aspects of the performing arts, from performer to choreographer, after over thirty years!

Sadly, even given his qualifications and magnificent success in other ventures, he was unable to prevent "The Tosca Project" from becoming a 90-minute muddle of clichés and stereotypes. His movement ideas were clever and fun and ultimately held the piece together because of the unwavering commitment of the performers and a few clever design decisions including sound, lights and costumes.


Was it a doomed idea from the start or was the idea overwhelmed by the collaborative process? Commissioning, sponsoring and funding numerous workshop performances of a new work is always risky and yet laudable work. This is no exception. One can easily imagine how rewarding and exciting it was for the participants who included students from ACT's master of fine arts program, company actors, as well as an array of accomplished dancers.

The Tosca, located on Columbus Street in San Francisco, has a history of being frequented by stars of stage and film, including ballet dancers of Russian heritage, so the cast would include both dancers and actors. The dancers would be expected to act and the actors would be expected to move. By throwing enough people into the studio together to discuss what was happening in the place—both Tosca and San Francisco—somehow characters and a storyline would emerge.

Especially noteworthy were the show-saving performances of Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat, both principal dancers with San Francisco Ballet, who had just completed a grueling season of eight different programs at the War Memorial Opera House. They are consummate professionals whose abundant talents were pure pleasure to observe. Movement that mere mortals would find horrifyingly difficult was simple for them compared to the complex choreography they execute to perfection as world-class ballet dancers. They had plenty of energy and talent left over to devote to evoking character. Especially moving was their good-bye scene as Pascal left for Navy duty. Lorena was radiant as a young lover ignited by this blissful goodbye. By contrast, without a script to guide them, the actors grasped for meaning and mostly failed to find little more than fleeting insight in their roles.  


A messy and unruly creative process yielded snippets of a story and glimpses of character that were grafted onto the only through-line that could be established. The twentieth century history of San Francisco was acted out in mostly silent skits that attempted to depict various eras and events such as the roaring twenties, the depression, the second world war, the beatnik and hippie eras, the advent of AIDS and the insistence of technology into the café culture. Another corny story about the intersection of Tosca's three employees included the bartender's lost love, a fugitive musician, and a woman, known as The Immigrant, who eventually took over the bar. None of these characters were ever fully realized but their appearances, in between the period-based skits, lent some feeling of grounding and continuity.



Relying upon oral histories taken from people who are either currently involved with the bar or who knew people or had family members who were, this story was created as a fictionalized tribute to characters both real and imagined. Among the many problems revealed during the performance was the uneven treatment given to events and characters. The lugubrious tale of the original bartender (portrayed by Jack Willis) and his long-lost love was woven throughout the evening by appearances of a dancer in a red slip of a dress (Sabina Allemann). Evidently this was supposed to explain his alcoholism and withdrawal from the world but, really, who cares? He's a career bartender! It's a given that he's an alcoholic and a recluse who only comes to life at night in front of an audience of like-minded losers!


Actor Gregory Wallace portrayed the fugitive musician, on the run after accidentally killing his lover, who finds safe haven within the chaos of the bar. Though his presence was warm and likeable, his character never developed into anything more than a background visual.

The third main character, the woman known as The Immigrant (Rachel Ticotin), is evidently based upon a fusion of the real-life owner of the Tosca and her mother, a Russian immigrant who settled in San Francisco and ran a restaurant for decades. Through the blending of these two women into one character who revered ballet dancers, we were introduced to various Russian ballet dancers. These included a brief appearance by Lorena Feijoo embodying Anna Pavlova in the "Dying Swan" and Pascal Molat as Vaslav Nijinski in "L'Après-midi d'un faun." Decades later Pascal Molat reappears to perform a lyrical and poignant impersonation of Rudolf Nureyev who serves as a symbol for frivolous disco-infused fun that evidently lead to death by AIDS (or as the voiceover describes in a punishing bit of overkill: an undisclosed disease). Most strange was the depiction of the great ballerina Natalia Makarova, who is arguably as talented and accomplished as Nureyev, as a ditzy gold digger who throws herself at a business man (Peter Anderson) she meets in the bar. This clumsy and insulting vignette is evidently based upon the real-life introduction of Makarova to her husband, Edward Karkar.



Other members of the cast who appear in various ensemble and individual pieces include Sara Hogrefe, Kyle Schaefer, both graceful and gifted recent graduates of ACT's master of fine arts program, and Nol Simonse, a dancer with a unique style of physicality that Caniparoli exploited for some welcome humor. 

Watching the production early in its month-long run at San Francisco's Curran Theatre, I wondered how and why this piece had spiraled out of control. Was it because Perloff had intended to experiment with a collaborative process but ultimately she couldn't stop herself from usurping control? Or was she incapable of creating a cohesive storyline? Did she continuously invite more and more people into the creative process hoping that eventually someone would come up with the big idea that would save the project from its doomed trajectory? Or was it simply too small of an idea that Perloff insisted on wedding to too vague a vision? I envisioned how Caniparoli must have panicked as opening night drew near. Surely he knew that this work, to which he had devoted four years on and off, was unredeemable. But what could he have done especially given the notorious ego of his co-collaborator? Future would-be colleagues of Perloff be warmed. Let "The Tosca Project" serve the purpose of warning off future victims of the lure of collaborating with Carey Perloff.

Photos - Kevin Berne
Courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


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©2010 Catherine Conway Honig
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in
the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Writer for Scene4.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives



Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

July 2010

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