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vancouverplays review


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by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli
American Conservatory Theatre / Theatre Calgary
Vancouver Playhouse
Oct. 8-29
604-873-3311 or

The Playhouse opens its season with an entertaining dance-theatre piece from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, co-presented with Theatre Calgary. Celebrating the legendary San Francisco bar of the title, the production represents a rare and welcome cross-border theatrical collaboration. But as a cross-genre hybrid, the show enjoys only mixed success.

A visit to San Francisco by the Playhouse production of The Overcoat, Morris Panych’s wordless adaptation of Gogol’s classic story, in which actors performed synchronized dramatic movement to the music of Shostakovich, inspired director Carey Perloff and choreographer Val Caniparoli to create Tosca Cafe. They stage it using a wide range of recorded 20th century music and a mixed cast of actors and trained dancers.

The dancers get to dance and they are glorious. The women especially (Sabina Allemann, Sara Hogrefe, CindyMarie Small) are wonderfully watchable and Caniparoli’s choreography, ranging from Swan Lake to disco, is consistently terrific.

The actors, on the other hand, don’t really get to act. Only once, when Peter Anderson recites a ‘50s beat poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (in a fabulous scene with the ensemble exploding behind him), does anyone speak. Acting without being allowed to speak is like dancing with one leg tied behind your back. It worked in The Overcoat because ALL the performers were actors and the choral movement was consistently tight and imaginative. Here the result is an unbalanced show in which the dancers shine and the actors alongside them look constrained.

The actors aren’t helped by a shapeless story—Gogol this is not—that spans 60 years with characters who are merely types. Talented Dean Paul Gibson, who along with Anderson starred in The Overcoat, plays The Bartender, an Italian immigrant who founded the cafe in 1919 and dreams continually of a woman in a red dress whom he left behind, who appears in a series of gorgeous dance sequences.

He collects a couple of strays: the Orphan (Annie Purcell) and the Musician, an African-American on the run from the cops (loose-limbed, under-utilized Gregory Wallace), who work at the cafe with him over the decades. Along with funny, rubbery Anderson, who plays a variety of characters, they share some effective synchronized movement sequences as well as lame silent film-style scenes as the eras mechanically unfold, marked by Robert Wierzell’s lighting changes and Robert de la Rose’s period costumes.

The Depression leads into the war years, the beatniks turn into hippies, disco is followed by AIDS and an earthquake. The male dancers (Nol Simonse, Kyle Schaefer and Canadian ballet legend Rex Harrington, a much better dancer than actor) play businessmen, sailors, the other denizens of the Tosca. The cafe lives on, visually alive but frustratingly mute.                  

Jerry Wasserman