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The Tosca Project

January 17, 2007

There are at least as many tales surrounding Tosca as there are crooners on the North Beach drinking den’s vintage Wurlitzer jukebox. Michael Douglas hung out there while hunting down murder suspect Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, and Nicholas Cage have all been spotted sipping cocktails in the gloom. Hunter S. Thompson, a Tosca regular during his stint as a columnist for The Examiner in the 1980s, broke his ankle doing a pirouette off the bar and, refusing medical help, fixed the injury himself using electrical tape. The gonzo journalist even reportedly tended bar once when the owner was out getting a root canal. The nightspot’s plush, red vinyl booths and coffeeless cappuccinos (a house specialty) are now providing inspiration for another story: Tosca’s, a movement-based theater piece created by A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff and choreographer Val Caniparoli, toasts the bar’s place in local history as a favorite haunt of opera singers, Beat poets, émigrés and assorted eccentrics. A.C.T’s First Look New Plays Festival presents two script-in-hand performances of the evolving piece.

Last night, Chris Smith, artistic director of the Magic Theatre, and I went to dinner and then to see what ACT and SF Ballet had produced during their total of eight days of rehearsal to date. They had about 40 minutes of material, but the excerpt still felt rambling and a bit pointless. The most important thing the group needs to do is figure out what story they're trying to tell. There's not much of a throughline, save a kind of obvious teleological one which takes us through the different decades in Tosca's history from the 1920s to the 50s (they haven't progressed beyond the Beats yet.)

What I enjoyed most about the rehearsal was watching the dancers. They're a very international crowd (France, Ukraine, Australia...) and quite stole the show from the actors in the cast withe their energy and witty approach to the material. While the actors' movements seemed to be full of cliches (Gregory Wallace stooped over and grimacing as a bluesman; some young blonde thing whose name I can't recall doing her best Marilyn impression etc), the dancers invented some subtle, fresh gestures. One I will never forget was something the French dancer was doing with her right foot. In one scene, where the female performers were mooning over pictures of their long-lost boyfriends and husbands gone to war, she would wiggle her foot along the ground away from here with an ecstatic look on her face. Her foot seemed to have a life of its own. Her toes seemed to curl with pleasure at the thought of being held in the arms of her lover again.

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