Boxcar Theatre, the intrepid company that staged the song "Skid Row" from their production of "Little Shop of Horrors" out on one of the sleaziest streets of San Francisco you might happen to find, or perched the audience for their version of "Clue" above a life-sized game board as the actors rolled dice and emoted from square to square, has done it again.
Their newest undertaking, "The Speakeasy," is a three-hour trip into history that activates all the senses. Is it flawless? No, but it is a helluva good time!
Artistic Director Nick Olivero and his extensive team have created a fully realized visit to a 1923 den of nightclub entertainment fronting an illegal hooch and gambling operation replete with secret knocks, fancy cocktails and the ongoing admonition to "speak easy." The last bit is not only a nod to the historical context of these establishments being on the down-low, but advice gently delivered by house staff to discourage patron-generated (possibly liquor-fueled) distractions from the immersive theatre piece that is unfolding all around you.
This is no murder-mystery dinner theatre or historical theme park recreation. The 3,600 square-foot space has been configured into a series of playing spaces -- in addition to the bar, casino, and cabaret, there's a dressing rooms with two-way mirrors, an office and other spaces -- and soon after being admitted you are allowed, nay, encouraged to wander through retractable bookcases and door-sized paintings on hinges to explore your new environment.
The art direction and scenic design are pretty darn cool. (As soon as they pump a little more A/C into the central bar space -- surreptitiously, of course, so as to not be too anachronistic -- the room will be too!)
Of course, back in the day, patrons did sweat and fret a bit about being caught in an illegal establishment, and those are among the many stories dramatized throughout "The Speakeasy" by three dozen actors, a costumed wait staff and the show runners. The engaging multi-layered script also delves into marital woes, WWI PTSD, substance and gambling addition, unexpected romance, homosexual pursuit and panic, and many other facets of the human continuum. You can choose to follow the story that interests you most. However, you can't follow them all in one night, so repeat visits are clearly encouraged.
The entire experience is designed to intrigue and excite. Average patrons will buy their tickets not knowing where they are going. The day of the performance, they get a text with instructions on where to meet their contact. The text is one of the very few modern references, along with bringing a credit card for their bar and casino chip tab, to take them out of the period experience, where attending in period attire is warmly welcomed.
There's a charming faux furtiveness to the process and you can play along as much as you like, eavesdropping on this or that conversation. Characters sometimes engage patrons directly, but it is limited. In the room-for-growth area, expanding this improvisational aspect when the performers are not engaged in their tightly scripted duties among the dozen active story lines might make for a more fully engaged experience for the more adventurous patrons.
The acting cast carries the period style beautifully in their look, attitudes, speech patterns and body language. Some wobbly delivery moments on opening night were to be expected with an undertaking that has this many moving parts. These should quickly resolve with further iterations.
A major element of the evening is the cabaret performance. The comedy routines, guided wholly or in part, by the hysterically pliable Ted Zoldan, are strong and will continue to tighten, and the chorines kick it high when in ensemble, but across the board, the solo singing is weak and needs to improve.
As the Emcee, Will Trichon is suave and picture perfect, with a marvelously droll, arched-brow impeccable delivery of vintage lines either solo or with Zoldan. Unfortunately, Trichon's unamplified singing voice all but disappears, and not because the band is too loud.
As his leading lady, Nikola Printz serves up hauteur and diva hissy in generous and entertaining doses. She knocks an opera number through the roof with her legit voice, but seems to struggle to put across her bluesy numbers with any gusto.
A cast this large will probably see many changes, but the official opening performance offered memorable spotlight moments from Jeffrey Hoffman, Mark "Gabriel" Kenney, Annie Larson, Justin Lisznackie, Ed Mann, Brian Martin, Sara Ris, Gabriel Ross, Mary Samson, Sarah Savage, Dave Sikula and the almost impossibly precious Joe Yiakis.
At three-hours, it is definitely an event evening that can sometimes have a period-appropriate marathon air about it. Traffic patterns can be tricky, particularly in the bar when a scene opens up and room must be made for the actors while the wait staff is still working.
Solo patrons might feel a little lonely but, even in occasionally tight quarters, couples or small groups should have a grand time. Since the bar is always open, management will do well to create non-disruptive ways to handle the over-imbibed.
Overall, "The Speakeasy" has the potential to be the long-running alt-option to the venerable "Beach Blanket Babylon" which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Theatre fans will enjoy the craft and the younger patrons and the hipster-tech crowd ought to eat up the retro ambiance and the chance to go role-play in a tweet-free world for a night.
So dust off your fedora and spats, break out your bugle beads, and book a table at "The Speakeasy" for a Roaring' Twenties-style good time!
"The Speakeasy" is currently accepting reservations through April 26 for the performance, at a discreet studio space in San Francisco. Location will be revealed upon ticket purchase. For information or tickets, visit thespeakeasysf.com.