ONSTAGE One hundred years ago the US Senate bowed to the pressure of temperance activists and passed the National Prohibition Act. It was one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful laws in American history—having the effect of creating a huge criminal underground of distillers and sellers who, when they weren’t busy killing each other, kept the “Roaring Twenties” very loud indeed.
No doubt San Francisco, already fabled for its hedonism (the original “Barbary Coast” was a 19th-century red-light district along Pacific Street), was one of the biggest municipal customers for all that illicit hootch. Why can’t the tech industry currently overrunning SF invent something really useful, like a time machine? Fortunately, there’s an alternative: Folks who would really like to experience the decadence of the “Jazz Age” for an evening can visit The Speakeasy, an immersive theatrical experience that will be ending its very long (about five years) run on August 4.
Nick A. Olivero’s Boxcar Theatre creation is currently in its second home, a labyrinthine subterranean space below China Live on Broadway—just a few blocks from another SF theatrical institution that’s soon coming to a close, Beach Blanket Babylon. You rendezvous with staff at a pre-arranged meeting point, then hand your “prescription” for “medicine” to the surly proprietor at “Joe’s Clock Shop.” (Being an idiot, I immediately forgot my one and only password “line,” to the actor’s understandable annoyance.) This gets you ushered through a secret passageway to a maze of rooms frozen in the year 1927, along with up to 250 other patrons and a whole lotta in-character “staff.”
My experience of the current Speakeasy iteration subtitled Age of Scofflaws began in a smallish room whose denizens included a musical trio, a Sophie Tucker-esque singer (Em Lee Reaves) trilling the topical “Sahara” (i.e. thanks to Prohibition, “Now we’re dry like you”), a testy mobster-type proprietor (Mark Nassar), a dim-bulb bouncer (Tom Osborne), a soap salesman-slash-barstool philosopher (Kevin Copps), scantily clad chorines, and miscellaneous other local color. One chesty dancing tootsie affixed me with such a don’t-you-even-try-to-touch-
Other audience members presumably began their evening elsewhere in the space; at a certain point, cast personnel begin advising patrons that it’s OK to wander around. In my case, this resulted in the discovery that yet another level down was a considerably larger “cabaret” auditorium, with a bigger band and more barely-clad chorus girls. The entertainment at this level is steered by an Archie Rice-type comedian (Burt Nesor), with specialty acts including another raunchy lady of song (Holly Silk as “Easy Eloise”), a contortionist (Hunny Bunny), and tunes like “The Dumber They Are, The Better I Like ‘Em.”
It is definitely not in your best interest to experience The Speakeasy in conventional passive-spectator terms. Your best guides are return viewers, who drift in and out at will. (Like any true SF success story these days, the night attended The Speakeasy seemed to be largely peopled by tech workers and foreign tourists.) They already know what will surprise the first-time visitor: That this is a little labyrinth in which something is always happening, and staying in the official retro “performance” spaces only means you’ll catch a series of deliberately not-always-so-hot “acts” while missing the wee psychodramas tucked into other rooms, including “hidden” ones like a casino. (Where “the house always wins” for real—you’re not gonna make back your ticket money here, folks.)
On the night attended, not everybody seemed to grasp (despite multiple polite warnings, and even a sort of shusshing “safe word”) that live performance means audience members should speak softly, if at all. But as the evening wears on and alcohol loosens inhibitions (unfortunately at 2019 cocktail prices, but oh well), disorder becomes part of the program. There are character meltdowns in Bennett Fisher and Oliver’s script, which (not counting improvisational elements) reportedly runs up to 1500 pages. My favorite moment was pure theater-of-the-absurd: A fantasy sequence in which Copps’ Tom conjures a worst-case-scenario for a skittish newbie (Cliff Martin) involving a police raid, gangsters and surreal mayhem.
Though there’s a “dress code” only for Saturdays, patrons are encouraged to wear period-appropriate garb. As luxe an indulgence as The Speakeasy is, with its high-end ticket price justified by over thirty performers and a huge production investment, the show is ironically becoming yet another casualty of SF’s affordability crisis: It simply can’t continue operating, as costs (about 120 people are on a weekly payroll) stubbornly outpace income.
It’s a real pity, because this is exactly the kind of involving, employing, history-acknowledging and imagination-stirring event San Francisco needs, now more than ever. When artistic culture gets priced out, even “The City That Knows How” can become just another city that forgot how. In any case, you have less than two months left to catch The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws. So get on it.
THE SPEAKEASY: AGE OF SCOFFLAWS
Through Sun/August 4, $75-$145
Tickets and more info here.