Max Bell Theatre
Sept 13 to October 2, 2011
Carey Perloff, co-creator of Tosca Café, is quoted in the performance program saying that the idea for the production came when she and a choreographer decided to see what would happen if they put five ballet dancers and five actors in a room and tried to make a piece together. If the production of Tosca Café I saw is any indication, the answer is nothing good. Not good dancing. Not good acting. And surely not a good way to spend one hour forty-five minutes of your time.
The piece, and note that I say piece here and not play because there is no dialogue in the performance nor is there any real plot holding the action together, takes place in the San Francisco bar Tosca Café. The bartender comes from overseas and opens the business obviously still haunted by his presumed dead wife. After firing his buffoonish waiters, he meets and hires an orphan to help him out and eventually the place starts to receive patrons. All of this is discerned as I said without the use of dialogue or even song. Instead, Tosca Café relies on what I’ll call mime acting and dance segments to tell the narrative and move the action along.
In principle, nothing wrong with this method of storytelling, ballet and other forms of dance have used it to great effect over the years. The problem with this production right from the start however is that the mime acting is really just clichéd over-exaggeration of facial and body language and the dance segments are never fully realized, always petering out just as they get good to once again return to the charade acting.
The plot such as it is, sees a series of vignettes and moments in the bar over the years from each decade of operation – seven or eight to my count, right up to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Each decade is announced by the playing of an appropriate song on the jukebox in the corner, the age of the bar owner, the patrons attire and the type of dancing they do. Some of these moments work very well – the 1980’s dance scene that has men and women in power suits drinking, smoking, working too hard and nursing hangovers uses dance to beautifully show the excesses of the decade. Others such as the 70’s is so hackneyed that by the time the dancer with “LSD” written on his bare chest came out and joined the flower children playing at being stoned, I was truly embarrassed for all of them.
But not as embarrassed as when halfway through the production in or around the 60’s scene, without warning, one character began to speak. Well not speak so much as deliver a kind of beat poetry performance while the other dancers moved about. After almost an hour of silence it was jarring and awkward and didn’t fit with what the performance was trying to accomplish. And for me, it just made me long for some pithy dialogue to help save me from the boredom.
Fine, fine…..but, what about Rex? For those of you who don’t know, Rex Harrington, one of the most acclaimed ballet dancers of his era, is in the performance. No doubt this is the reason people will flock to see the production. Well, he is fine but nothing more. And believe me, to say that about Rex breaks my heart as I am a long-time fan. Harrington, like the rest of the ensemble cast is hampered by having to engage in silly wordless acting and he is even more caged by dance segments that don’t really allow him to do his thing. Several times during the performance when it was his turn to play the lead character in the vignette, I sat back and thought…ok…here comes the magic. But even with his famous charisma (which he still has by the way) and his talent, his pieces stopped short and quickly were a letdown through no fault of his own.
A few of the other performers managed to find small moments of light. Gregory Wallace as the musician and bar waiter was one of the few performers who could make the mime acting look effortless and even cool. Annie Purcell as the orphan had great stage presence and was the only character I actually connected with on any emotional level. Finally Sara Hogree as one of the dancers was able to get the most out of the little choreography she was given and did it with joyous energy and great fun.
Unfortunately little moments do not a full performance make and while Tosca Café might have been an interesting experiment, for me it was one best left on the shelf.
For the guys – Dancing, no dialogue, no real plot, not much to keep your interest. Need I say more? SKIP IT
For the girls – The dancing isn’t pretty or unique enough to be compelling and while you may connect with the orphan character there is nothing else that you will care about. SKIP IT
For the occasional audience – If you think you are getting a chance to see Rex Harrington in action you will be disappointed. He’s one of many cast members and you’ll be bored before you even catch a glimpse of him. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – The idea of mashing up dance and acting is intriguing. But only if the result is worthwhile. SKIP IT