From the time you give the password to your handler in a North Beach alleyway and receive directions to the secret location, you know that this isn’t going to be a routine evening’s entertainment. When you arrive, you find an amazing reproduction of a 1920’s Prohibition Era speakeasy, with staff and customers dressed to fit the mode. The experience you have will probably be unlike any you have had before. At its best, The Speakeasy offers a distinctive, well-constructed, and engaging insight into a subculture from nearly a century ago – its values, its fears, its diversions, and its look.
So what is this entertainment? It’s immersive theater, in which the theater’s fourth wall is broken, and the audience becomes part of the play – an interactive activity well suited to millennial preferences. Perhaps the best known and most successful example of this format is Tony and Tina’s Wedding in which the audience are treated as wedding guests. That event involves significant interaction between the cast and guests, and the plot is a simple framework allowing for much improvisation.
While The Speakeasy allows for audience involvement, the detail and sophistication of the production is evidenced by its script, which is – get this – 1,487 pages long! How can that be, you ask? The answer is that there are three major venues and several smaller ones, each of which has continuous entertainment for 3 1/2 hours or so. To begin the evening, guests are assigned to specific rooms, but as the night progresses, they are free to move about as they wish in the rabbit warren of entertainment sites. At one extreme, this allows the viewer to move randomly from one scenario to another, or at the other extreme, to follow a particular character who moves from one setting to another.
In two of the major settings, the casino and the bar, and in some of the smaller ones, actors are totally integrated with customers. You may not initially realize that the guy on the barstool next to you is part of the show until he takes a swing at some other palooka walking by or yells at his girlfriend across the room. Players are acting to scripts that may be about bad relationships or management/labor strife or nightmare reenactments of scenes from the front lines in World War I.
The cabaret is the third major venue, and its dramatic situations are built around stage acts of the period – dancing girls, singers, sword swallowers, magic, standup comedy, and all you would expect from vaudeville. The audience mostly watches in conventional fashion, but occasionally, guests, including this victim, are called onto stage to be a foil or a fool. At other observational venues, guests seem more like voyeurs. At one, the crowd observes artists interacting with one another through what appears to be a large two-way mirror into the dressing room of the cabaret. Another venue is an office with a boss and an employee, but they are viewed through one-person peepholes, increasing the feeling that what you are doing is not quite right.
Adding to the period feel, over 50 songs from the era are performed throughout the site. Another characteristic of the evening is that there are chances to talk to performers who stay in character during the exchanges. Of course, booze must flow at a watering hole, and a menu of classy cocktails is available with a short list of finger foods. Gaming is permitted in the casino, but for bragging rights only.
Because there are tens of vignettes, each guest will see only a fraction of what is available. Thus experiences will vary, as does the nature and quality of each vignette. And while there is substantial connective tissue among a number of the coordinated vignettes, one should not expect the cohesive arc of a traditional play. For those really taken with the format, a return visit to The Speakeasy could be substantially different than the first.
The production involves nearly 40 performers and about the same number of staff. Some noted actors from the Bay Area are in the cast and turn in fine performances. Clay David and Brian Rosen play comedians Jeffries and Oliver; Anthony Cistaro is the Emcee in the cabaret; and Megan Wicks plays the canary, Velma. Other interesting casting includes the Pit Boss, played by Tomas Roman, who may be familiar to many as he was a television news reporter in the Bay Area for 34 years. The character Sal is played by Mark Nassar, whose distinguished career interestingly includes co-creating Tony and Tina’s Wedding.
To understand how massive this undertaking is, the initial budget was $3 million to fit out the unique space and to create and develop the show. The logistics of coordinating plot lines and moving actors around the many sets is highly complex. And the costuming challenges alone are indicated by the chorus girls having 14 costume changes during the evening.
Warning: Try not to get separated from your partner. The passageways, doors, and rooms in the warren are unmarked and convoluted. Not to mention, the crowds may be an obstacle to your search, and you won’t have your cellphones to help you locate one another. Note: this suggestion is based on experience!
The Speakeasy is written by Bennett Fisher and Nick A. Olivero and is produced by David Gluck, Geoffrey Libby & Nick A. Olivero in association with Boxcar Theatre. It performs at an undisclosed location in the North Beach area through February 26, 2017. For more information, go to https://thespeakeasysf.com.