Bennett Fisher & Nick A. Olivero
A secret location, back alley meetings, required passwords, strict rules delivered with stern warning, boutonnieres denoting messages, and an entrance through a Chinese laundry into curtained passages in a basement-world below – All and more are the beginning parts of an evening of uproarious fun and mystery at The Speakeasy. The setting is August 2, 1923, in a club hidden away from the G-men but not at all a secret to the packed, sold-out crowd of revelers – women who have arrived in flapper dresses decorated in feathers and flowers, beads and rhinestones and men who have donned suspenders and spats, gartered sleeves, and lots of black attire. The three-plus-hour evening begins either in a large nightclub, a crowded casino, or a bar with piano playing and drinks flowing among the many tables’ inhabitants. In fact, drinking the offered exotic drinks is close to a requirement and will play a big part in the continued enjoyment and build-up of the evening to come as merrymakers begin to roam at will among the several rooms and many hallways, nooks, and crannies in this Roaring Twenties, underground world of “illicit” jollity.
|Anthony Cistaro & Jessica Waldman|
With over forty actors and a script purportedly of 1500 pages (written by Bennett Fisher & Nick A. Olivero), The Speakeasy is an incredible accomplishment for the production’s not one, but four directors (Michael French, Leah Gardner, Erin Gilley, and Nick A. Olivero). Throughout the night, not only are there ongoing stage shows of comedians, singers, and dancers, there are multiple, ongoing “happenings” and interactions occurring at any given moment, in any given setting. With most of the paying guests dressed in their own costumes, it is often a surprise that the period-attired person standing or sitting nearby suddenly is interrupting the show with drunken slurs, angrily throwing cards at the Blackjack dealer, or accusing a waitress of infidelity.
|Zachery Euberg & Theresa Miller|
Partygoers have the choice of staying mostly in one place to see what develops in that venue, roaming aimlessly around and running into ‘action’ along the way, or following faithfully a particular character room to room (one probably named right out of The Untouchables with a nomenclature like Vinnie, Sal, Mickey or Velma, Viola, Virginia). The result, as touted by the company itself, is that each partyer is bound to experience a very different evening from all others. To experience all the different storylines, characters, and dramas/comedies, a number of visits, we are told, are necessary — which may be one reason The Speakeasy seems to have so many advance, sold-out evenings.
While there is not an overall, evident plot for the evening, the events of the 1920s era in San Francisco and in the United States are threaded throughout. Historical events touched upon include the Anti-Saloon League’s role in the City’s referendum on whether to endorse or not the country’s constitutional amendment on Prohibition (a vote that the City did pass), the arrival of Irish immigrants to S.F., the growth of local labor unions, the growing fear of Commies in the City, and the sudden death of President Harding at the Palace Hotel … to name a few.
|Adam Simpson & Violet Gluck|
But if one chooses to follow a particular, quirky soul, an entire set of personal, highly idiosyncratic subplots threads through the night. One might follow, for example, Archie (Adam Simpson), a father who drags illegally his young daughter Sarah (third-grader Edye Dunn, who alternates with Violet Gluck) into the bar and who has a drink-induced set of hard-luck stories that are revealed bit by bit and an anger that is seething until the liquor causes it to explode — emotionally and physically. And his is just one of a couple dozen or more singular stories that take three hours fully to play out; but stories that most roving audience members will only catch glimpses here and there.
Attending The Speakeasy may even pull an innocent, ticket-buying bystander into a developing story, silly situation, or sudden conflict. While playing Blackjack, I was handed a note by the dealer reading, “When I leave, follow me … Bring your friend along … No one else.” At the designated moment, we followed Dealer Tom through hallways, down dimly lit steps, and out into an alley. There we were told that “Tony” said we could be trusted and were given “$50” worth of chips to play when Tom gave the signal by scratching his head. We were promised, “You do this right, we split the winnings; and this is just the first of many dealings we can have together.” Not to spoil the outcome but needless to say, not all went as planned. We ended up in a backroom where the big boss sat waiting with a baseball bat and a lot of threats. Evidently, these types of individual events in closed-off quarters go on throughout the evening to “the chosen” among us.
|Clay David, David Magidson & Anthony Cistaro|
Just as most of us in attendance are boozing it up during the evening, many of the actors’ characters are likewise as part of their storyline having a few too many. As the third hour of the evening hits, the noise level everywhere increases (not from us, since we as ticketholders are explicitly warned to “speak easy” and only in whispers to order more drinks). Slurred group singing erupts; confrontations increase; fights break out; faces are slapped; and bums are dragged away by bouncers while sung ballads get sadder from the stage; the guy at the bar starts crying; or the woman on the couch finally accepts her sad fate in life. And just when we begin to wonder how will all this ever end, a somewhat predictable but very clever and well-executed surprise occurs, at which time we all file out and head home.
The scores — if not hundreds — of planned, scripted interactions filling the evening are supported by a creative team where few flaws are ever evident. Somehow, lights dim, focus, shift, and go full-lit at just the right moments to focus on specific and general actions and events in multiple locations at the same time – all thanks to the outstanding design of Allen Willner, Gabe Maxson, and Brad Peterson. The same occurs for sound effects and piped-in music as designed by Bay Area master, Matt Stines.
Abra Berman’s costumes are eye-popping and a show unto themselves as scantily clad flappers dance in beads and spangles; gangster types roam around in their black suits and studded collar pins; and bar patrons arrive with their life stories highly evident by just the manner of period clothes they wear. Choreographers Elizabeth Etler and Kimberly Lester, Fight Coordinator Mark Gabriel Kenney, and Movement Director Deborah Eliezer all deserve individual kudos for the highly planned, well-executed floor shows on the stages, fisticuffs in the bars and hallways, sudden trips/slips onto the floor, and the ability to get the right characters to the right spots time and again throughout the three hours. Finally, Musical Director Benjamin Prince has planned the era’s live music that permeates through a five-piece band in the nightclub and a piano player and various singers in the bar area.
The major criticisms are overall minor and correctable over time. There are a number of times – especially in the bar – when a character’s lines and/or song could not be heard, even though through lighting it was clear all our attentions were to be placed on that person. For the number of people that are roaming around and for the length of time of the entire evening, my companion and I felt another venue or two were needed to help in terms of increasing variety and of relieving the number of people sometimes crammed into one room/location. We were both struck by “how white” the entire cast of forty-plus is. That felt noticeable and uncomfortable in a City where there is so much diversity among actors and where color-blind casting is so much the norm (even realizing the speakeasies of the time period would have likely been all Caucasian in performers, staff, and revelers).
Finally, while the evening is overall fun and fairly fast moving, by the third hour there was noticeable evidence that a number of people were ready to leave (including me and my guest). Since by entrance agreement no exit is allowed until the prescribed end, maybe a bit of script editing might be in order to shorten slightly the overall evening.
The Speakeasy is one of several ‘only in San Francisco’ events that we residents are so lucky to be able to attend and to offer to take our out-of-town guests. The production is rich in the City’s history – both fact and fictional – and is a theatrical gem to be treasured.
Rating: 4 E
The Speakeasy continues in an open-ended run in a secret venue somewhere near Chinatown and North Beach in San Francisco. Appointments can be scheduled online for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays at http://www.thespeakeasysf.com.
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