Tosca Café. Brings back memories of my seven year stint living in San Francisco. If only to have been a fly on the wall of the infamous North Beach Café in the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s, when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Rudolf Nureyev and other luminaries enjoyed its eclectic atmosphere.
The café’s memories live on at the Vancouver Playhouse’s presentation of ACT San Francisco and Theatre Calgary‘s Tosca Café. An entire stage set is built to recreate the café, and details are not spared. All major cultural movements are covered in song, dance, and costume.
This production began four years ago in San Francisco, later developed further at Theatre Calgary. Additional dancers as well as Annie Purcell’s Orphan character were added, evolving into the play now being shown at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. The cast now comprises one big happy family, including both American and Canadian dancers.
Tosca Café was partly inspired by a Canadian theatre piece, The Overcoat, a production that included Peter Anderson and Dean Paul Gibson, also part of the Tosca cast.
The actual San Franciscan bar dates to 1919 and is reputed to be named after one of its three Italian founders, Tosca Francesconi Sartori. In 2009, San Francisco’s Tosca Café celebrated its 90th anniversary with a celebrity-studded party.
The play opens just after World War I, when the Bartender arrives in San Francisco from Italy, having left behind the love of his life, who’d passed away before he left abroad. Once he gets the bar underway, it becomes filled with patrons of all walks of life, becoming a popular watering hole for Depression-era survivors, sailors, Beat poets, hippies and disco lovers. Through dance, several decades and historical movements are covered.
The theme of lost love recurs in the form of a beautiful dancer in a red dress appearing when the Bartender is alone, providing unspoken love and desire. It is also fitting that lyrical arias from Puccini’s Tosca are chosen during these tender moments of contemplation for the Bartender.
There’s even a moment in the play that rings home, when the 1989 San Francisco earthquake strikes the café while its patrons are gathered around a television set watching the World Series. Living in Los Angeles during that time, I felt that earthquake’s power, even though its epicenter was in Santa Cruz, an hour south of the city.
The play contains minimal dialogue, apart from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Beatnik poem, I am Waiting, one of my favourite scenes in the play. The story is done entirely through dance and gesture, and is easy to follow through its two hours.
The three main characters are an Orphan, a Musician, and the Bartender. Tosca Café is a delightful romp through the years, filled with passion, love, and bittersweet memories. Standout roles for me were the Musician (played by Gregory Wallace) and the Bartender (Dean Paul Gibson). All three age throughout the years in their own way, making the play appear all the more realistic. After all, it does cover seven decades of history.
Tosca Café runs through October 29, with shows Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, and a 2 pm matinee on both Wednesday (Tea matinee), October 26 and Saturday, October 29.
*A post-show actor/director Q&A will be held on Tuesday, October 25.
The Tea matinee on Wednesday, October 26 starts at 1 pm, with complimentary tea, coffee, and cookies prior to the 2 pm performance.
All photos courtesy of Trudie Lee.