Sabina Allemann and Jack Willis
in The Tosca Project
(© Kevin Berne)
Sabina Allemann and Jack Willis
in The Tosca Project
(© Kevin Berne)
Among the first performances at the newly built Columbia Theatre on Geary Street in the early part of the 20th Century was Giacomo Puccini's opera Tosca. A century later, on the very same stage, that tragic tale of lost love has inspired an exciting new theatrical work, The Tosca Project, created and staged by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and award-winning choreographer Val Caniparoli.

The work sets spare elements from the opera against a fast-moving historical journey, framed by another venerable San Francisco institution, North Beach's famed Tosca Café. Eschewing a linear plot or much in the way of spoken dialogue, the show presents instead a series of danced vignettes that inventively explore cultural touchstones, both comic and tragic, as might have been experienced in the Café from its 1919 founding through the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.

A bartender (Jack Willis), haunted by the vision of a woman in a red dress, and two colleagues unpropitiously open Tosca Café on the eve of Prohibition. Among their first customers is an immigrant woman (Rachel Ticotin), coping with poverty and the loss of the life she once knew. Soon after, a musician (Gregory Wallace) seeks refuge and anonymity inside Tosca's walls to blot the pain of a terrible tragedy. Each of the three bear near silent witness to the events of the next seven decades, seemingly trapped in a time warp of observation, becoming both the guardians of the café and its collective memory.

Musically, the production ranges perfectly from snippets of the eponymous opera through period-evoking songs by Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Charlie Parker, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, and San Francisco disco legend Sylvester.

Blending dancers from San Francisco Ballet with skilled actors, Perloff and Caniparoli have created a seamless ensemble that evoke a cascade of eras from the erstwhile carefree wild party days of Prohibition through World War II austerity and the audaciousness of the Beat Generation and the Summer of Love liberations that followed. Caniparoli's choreography is lithe, fluid, and never pretentious. Each dance movement tells its story with simplicity and honesty and the interstitial dramatic sequences continually deepen the complexity of the main characters.

The company is uniformly excellent. Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat perform a romantic pas de deux as lovers parted by war and reunited tragically. Molat later pays impressive tribute to Rudolph Nureyev, a Tosca habitué. Peter Anderson is comically engaging as one of the café's founders, and later as a suitor to Sabina Allemann's aging ballerina. Sara Hogrefe is lushly amusing as a beatnik bimbo, and Kyle Schaefer and Nol Simonese round out the stellar cast.

While the show's primary communication is through movement, The Tosca Project is so richly theatrical that even those audience members averse to dance-only presentations can have a deeply satisfying experience.