Freddie Larson as Vinnie. Photo by Peter Liu.
Around the corner from City Lights, a man in a blue hat waits for you to deliver the word. He will give you directions, and should you choose to accept them, you will find yourself at the heart of a speakeasy, transported back in time to the 1920s, the time of the Prohibition.
San Francisco is no stranger to speakeasies — The Devil’s Acre is across the street — and no stranger to immersive theatre. WePlayers does site-integrated renditions of famous plays, often with chilling effect. Staging plays at iconic locations creates a new kind of tension and sense of agency. If you can’t quite picture it, imagine Hamlet at Alcatraz. What better place to house madness?
But The Speakeasy production is the first in-house, original, immersive play to grace our foggy city. It debuted in 2014 for five months, selling out 75 shows in its Tenderloin location. As of August 2016, the play has a permanent home in North Beach, and is three times the size of the original.
This is no short order. Everything is painstakingly arranged to resemble the era. The tin ceiling is custom ordered and the bathrooms even have vintage toilets with the chambers high above the bowls. Rooms are accessed through sliding bookcases and portraits that reveal hidden doors. It is the ascendance of a childhood dream; every episode of Scooby Doo, like looking out through a porthole and seeing not the ocean, but a secret cellar. The difference is that this has been made real. And you are encouraged to dig in.
The play begins in one of several locations, among them the bar, the Vaudeville stage, and the casino. You will order drinks and settle in, believing the show to be only the modest room around you. “Immersive?” you’ll think to yourself, “the actors are around me but I expected something more.” Just as you’re beginning to worry you’ve overpaid, the actors will signal that you’re welcome to explore and follow the story lines that most interest you. The game is on.
Every shortcoming of set is made up for in plot. Smoking rooms were notorious in speakeasies, but state law prohibits it. The solution? Introduce a plot line in which the wife of the owner expresses her hatred of cigarette smoke. The bar closes before the show’s end to prevent audience members from becoming so drunk they harm the actors. This is explained by a missed shipment of moonshine.
The loyalty to era extends to the audience. Period dress is required and cell phones aren’t allowed. Upon entering you’re given a casing that blocks your phone’s reception. The era is so well recreated that a forgetful viewer can mistake another audience member for an actor. “While watching the play on opening night, I was gesticulating and speaking wildly. People flocked over, thinking I was a performer,” Creative Director, Nick Olivero, explains, “it proved to me that we were really transporting people. And then it proved to me that we should add a rule about being quiet.”
Anthony Cistaro as Eddie and Jessica Waldman as Viola. Photo by Peter Liu.
The Speakeasy beckoned me to explore. Though the play can be enjoyed in one room only — a number of old-timers stayed in the Vaudeville room and watched an entire evening of period performances — it is difficult not to be persuaded to follow. Actors move around frequently, sending viewers on a chase to catch the conclusion of a fight or a conversation. It is a perfect and imperfect date night: you will likely split up to chase your favorite scenes, but you won’t have to worry your partner didn’t enjoy the show.
Attentiveness is rewarded by seeing “in between” scenes, ones that happen in the hallways leading up to the cordoned stages. Rather than wondering about the showgirl storming offstage when she notices a specific seat in the audience is empty, you can trace her failed flirtations with that particular patron (also an actor in the show), to understand why he left the premises. This full immersion is as much a result of the The Speakeasy’s new home as the number of actors that create the ambience.
But there is a price to pay for this degree of immersion, for allowing the viewer to truly wander and pick their own adventure. Creative Director Nick Olivero explains, “The play is roughly 1,500 pages long, a total of fourteen hours.” Your night will only last three and a half hours. It would be possible to return two additional times and still not see all of it. In this sense, the review is largely spoiler free — though I’ve gone once, I have not seen all of it. But I hope to return. Like a favorite movie where the umpteenth re-watch yields new jokes and gems, it is a play that rewards diligence. My only critique is that it engenders an oppressive sense of fomo (fear of missing out). Don’t give in. Flocking after too many people creates a schizophrenic experience. Pick the ones you like and commit — you can always come back to see the others.
Beyond the delight of dashing around a fully outfitted set, The Speakeasy demands our attention in the gravity of its subject. It impressively combines history and fantasy, passing judgment on inflammatory source material without shying away or condoning inexcusable behavior. Throughout the evening, viewers are witness to blackface, drug abuse, sexual misconduct, a man being threatened with arrest for being gay, a drunkard neglecting his young daughter, and ragged men from the war. The Speakeasy never veers out of character by portraying these scenes with more aggression or, alternatively, optimism than their historical counterparts. Instead, it commits to telling the fullest story from every character’s perspective.
Megan Wicks as Velma. Photo by Peter Liu.
This is, in large part, due to the stage inside the dressing room, the stage I spent most of my time watching. Far from being relegated as the lesser sex in a bar crowded with men, the showgirls are given individual and complex motivations and plotlines. The female lead vocalist is a survivor of physical abuse and struggles with demons of her own. A gay man admits he is heartbroken and is able to come to terms with it in the relative secrecy of the dressing room. We become intimately aware of what it must have been like to be “other.” And most of us can identify with this feeling.
After a shameful Vaudeville rendition of blackface, the dressing room stages a scene where the performers converse with a member of the speakeasy custodial staff — a black man. Viewers witness a tense moment between performers and the subject of their mockery. While the play sheds light on the sociopolitical and monetary motivations for such behavior, it never forgives the actors for their transgressions. To these Vaudeville performers, the paycheck is more important than the fact that blackface comes at the expense of culture, dignity, and humanity. It is raw and it is vilifying.
This is what makes the play essential San Francisco fare. San Francisco has always been a misfit’s paradise, the place where liberal minded people seek refuge. Everyone has a story — it is simply a matter of listening closely enough. And if this all sounds mad, that’s because it is. In Nick Olivero’s own words: “Impossible and ridiculous, but that’s what we like.” Much like the lives of so many San Franciscans, The Speakeasy is the product of years sunken into a crazy dream. Accordingly, the play is a triumph.