San Francisco’s site-specific The Speakeasy from Boxcar Theatre invites you into a Prohibition-era haunt with amazing period costumes and design but fall shorts on story.
When you see the Man in an Orange Hat, wait until he’s free, and then ask him: “Do you know where to get a good slice of pie?”
Don’t even think about using your phone.
Wear cocktail attire.
San Francisco’s popular site-specific theatre experience, a Prohibition-era speakeasy set in a “secret” location in North San Francisco, is full of instructions. This is purposeful; Boxcar Theatre’s production does everything it can to create an authentic atmosphere of an illicit bar in the 1920s. The attention to detail is astounding when it comes to production design, with its period-perfect sets, costumes, sound, and makeup. However, with its many storylines and lack of clear instructions on how to navigate the space and characters, story and plot fall to the wayside in lieu of spectacle.Boxcar Theatre’s production creates an authentic atmosphere of an illicit bar in the 1920s. Click To Tweet
My friend and I began our experience in the street, waiting in a long line of people to get our information from the Man in an Orange Hat, fighting over who would actually have to ask the aforementioned question. Thankfully, neither of us did. It wasn’t so much discreet as it was a line at a theater box office, but the character was plenty eager and sent us on our way to the Speakeasy with plenty of instructions: “pin this rose on your top” — “turn off your phone” — “these are your casino chips but the house always wins” — and, of course, “speak easy.” We entered the bar late, in the middle of a conversation between two young WWI vets reuniting. Their storyline seemed interesting, but after that scene, they disappeared. We kept an eye out for them often over the next 3.5 hours, but only once, at the end, did one of them make a small reappearance in a group scene.
This was no Sleep No More (a dance-based five-floor performance loosely based on Macbeth) where you can follow a character the entire show, or catch a decent amount of story due to three one-hour-loops of narrative. It was no Drunk Shakespeare, where you sit in a bar and interact with the characters but witness the full performance loop. Somehow, it tried to be both. You could sit in the bar or the cabaret or play poker in the casino… but you couldn’t really interact with characters unless you were the girl chosen silently by one of the sullen vets for five minutes (usually, this type of thing involved having paid more for a premium ticket). So while this was site-specific theatre, it didn’t come across as very immersive or interactive. The audience remained passive, beautiful, set dressing.
Trying to get involved or stay with a character proved difficult sometimes. If a character disappeared somewhere, she might be in a room marked private and you’d just hope you’d run into her later on. This is what I did as much as I could with Velma (the powerful Megan Wicks), a strong and tragic — of course — lead singer and performer in the cabaret, popping pills and dealing with her controlling asshole husband — of course. But she’s one of the few characters that really stands out.'Velma is a strong and tragic — of course — lead singer and performer in the cabaret, popping pills.'Click To Tweet
It was beautiful yet frustrating. So much thought and energy had gone into the design, with hidden sliding doors, old-fashioned telephones, intricate chandeliers and ceilings, stunning costumes like Velma’s peacock dress, and picture-perfect wigs and makeup. Even the bathrooms were designed for the time period. Audience members are also expected to invest in their own outward experience, to dress in “cocktail attire.” But they aren’t necessarily expected to participate theatrically. You could just sit in the cabaret or bar drinking for all 3.5 hours, not finding hidden stories. In fact, by the last half, the dialogue between characters became hard to hear, because members of the audience were chatting so loudly with each other. Is this Speakeasy’s fault, or its audience’s fault? There isn’t really anyone guiding you, as many site-specific shows have. How should the audience know they have to hunt down the story?'Hidden sliding doors, old-fashioned telephones, intricate chandeliers and ceilings, stunning costumes'Click To Tweet
One unintended story was clear: Save one black man seating people in the cabaret, all of the performers were white or white-passing. The blond chorus girls are introduced as dancers from the Arab world at one point — because it’s exotic and interesting when we appropriate it (and just scary otherwise). An argument that similar productions could make is that only people of a certain class or means in that time period would be at the Speakeasy, and they would happen to be white. This doesn’t work with The Speakeasy, when its entire premise is that the audience members — far more diverse than its cast — are also part of the immersive world of the Prohibition era. Yes, it’s an ostensibly wealthy audience, considering the price of tickets, drinks, and dressing up. But it still reflects the demographics of the Bay Area, and with everyone dressed in somewhat period attire, it looked like just the white folks were jumping up to take the stage, leaving any people of colour (all audience, not cast) silent.SPEAKEASY is so close to perfect… but its storytelling doesn't quite deliver.Click To Tweet
The Speakeasy ends by bringing the audience together in a chorus of “Those were the days” in a moment of community that feels unearned before the Feds break in and kick us out. This is emblematic of the incredible specificity of design and dramaturgy that creates the atmosphere of this world, without filling the story. Speakeasy is so close to perfect… but in that one area — the essence of the reason I go to the theatre, for storytelling — it can’t quite deliver.