'The Speakeasy' Takes You To 1920's San Francisco

'The Speakeasy' Takes You To 1920's San Francisco
December 20, 2016

Boxcar Theatre’s revamped immersive show lets patrons wander through a Jazz-age bar and cabaret

Rasa Hill as Tom, Cooper Carlson as Mac, and Violet Gluck as Sarah in the Speakeasy. Photo by Peter Liu.


It didn’t really hit me just how perfect The Speakeasy’s reproduction of a 1920s cabaret was until I went to the bathroom about halfway through the show. I was expecting the men’s room to be a temporary exit from the spot-on ’20s decor that defined the rest of the five-ish rooms of the interactive set; instead, I entered, froze and looked around in amazement. It was a fixture-perfect re-creation of a 1920s-era bathroom, from the spherical glass soap dispensers to the tile flooring to the chain pullers that flush the toilets.


At that moment, I really, truly felt like I’d entered a time vortex. (It helped that my phone had been taken away and sealed upon entrance, part of the theater’s policy.) And this is precisely the kind of immersive magic that The Speakeasy attempts, successfully, to harness.


Because of a higher budget and the accumulated knowledge of the lessons of the initial 2014 run of the show, Boxcar Theatre’s second mounting of their interactive show features a larger venue, an enhanced script (over 1,500 pages), new characters and, notably, more potential to have one-on-one interactions with The Speakeasy’s cast of characters. Jennifer Maerz wrote a rave review of the 2014 version; wisely, the new mounting of the show doesn’t toy with the old formula too much. Instead, the era-appropriate adornments are now more lavish, the occupancy larger and the depth of the world far deeper.


Readers, you may have noticed that despite this being a theater review, I haven’t mentioned the plot much. That’s because as the theatrical equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure, you can have almost any experience you want at The Speakeasy. It’s an interactive re-creation of a Prohibition-era SF speakeasy, with a cabaret, bar, casino, lobby, dressing room and all the drama contained within and between. To that end, patrons have a choice as to what kind of entertainment experience they prefer: one could choose to sit in the cabaret all night and hear the songs and vaudeville sketches that defined that era, or, if you confine yourself to the bar, you’d hear the trials and tribulations of all the different breeds of eccentrics who populated the underground speakeasies of yore. The casino lets you try your hand at period-accurate gambling, and the dressing room — which has a one-sided mirror from which patrons can observe—fills in the backstory behind the characters in the cabaret.


Oh, and the bathroom I raved about: rumor has it there are actually scenes that take place in both the women’s and men’s rooms.

Megan Wicks as Velma. Photo by Peter Liu


As this was my first time seeing the show, I was overwhelmed with options and ended up trying to see as much as possible. Of course, that was hard to achieve: with around 14 hours of material, you’d need multiple visits to see everything. (I’m already planning my next trip.) My own recommendation for our readers: find one or two characters whose stories interest you most, and follow them for about half the show; spend the other half wandering, gambling and taking in the cabaret, which alone is worth the price of admission.


Some scholars and thinkers have argued that the video game is the dominant art form of the 21st century, partly because of its interactivity — “the player is no longer merely an observer,” critic Chris Melissinos has written. Yet The Speakeasy has improved on the video game’s formula: the show is interactive and immersive; it’s all around you; and, unlike a video game, it’s not confined to a screen.


If you go:


The Speakeasy runs every Thursday through Sunday through the end of February at an undisclosed location in Chinatown (if I told you, it would spoil the secret). There is a dress code for formal wear, though we noticed that those donning period-accurate formal wear had the most fun. Tickets range from $80 to &120, with the exception of a special New Year’s Eve show ($225). Find tickets and more information here.

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