Taking a Time Machine to 1920’s San Francisco
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On the edges of Chinatown and North Beach there’s a basement gin joint that takes a secret pass code to enter. Once past the fake door of the sham clock repair shop, you find yourself inside a gambling den and cabaret that’s been filled to the brim with bathtub hooch. Outside, Prohibition has cleaned the streets but you’re a member of the 1930s social elite — low on morals and high on strong cocktails.
As you stand at the bar, a man comes up to you. “Nice duds,” he says. You’re preparing a thank you when he offers: “Whadyah dress yourself in the dark? Ah! Hey, I’m just kidding.”
Then he passes you a flask of illicit gin and promises to sell you a bottle later that night. All around you, stories are unfolding. There’s no way to watch it all. You could pick a character, maybe two, and try to follow as best as you can.
This is immersive theater, the post-modern art of mixed performance — not to be confused with post-modern performance art, which usually involves awkward public nakedness. No, this is different, this is Boxcar Theater’s new set of seven intertwining plays known as “The Speakeasy.”
Built out in a basement that once housed a Chinese movie theater, the space has two bars, a casino, and a cabaret, as well as bathrooms, dressing rooms and the boss’s office — all places where the drama unfolds. Thirty-five actors play out a script that is timed down to the minute, transporting patrons back in time to 1923 San Francisco.
The attention to detail in the place is fantastic. The cabaret room is a dazzling circular, white and blue masterpiece that Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway would have been happy to play in. A six-piece jazz band backs up chanteuses and showgirls in this throwback performance hall. Stage performance bleeds into floor performance and fades into imagination.
The Speakeasy has a nightly staff of around 75 and can legally hold 225 patrons, an unenviable ratio for any performance hall.
“We’re trying to defy the laws of physics, finance and common sense,” says general manager and production partner, David Gluck. “And we’ve done it! This thing should not exist but it does!”
The idea for this strange project came to producer Nick Olivero about six years ago while he was filling a theater with sand for a beach-themed play. “It was during load-in at two or three o’clock in the morning that this idea came to me like a vision,” he says, hamming it up just a bit. None-the-less, the idea came to fruition, originally as a fundraiser, which spawned much of the interactive elements. “I thought: ‘This is too much work to do just once.’”
Originally performed in a smaller theater, the production has broadened its scope. In addition to producers Olivero, Gluck and Geof Libby, the show now boasts three stage directors, two chorus directors, three lighting designers, two sound designers, two scene designers, a music director and a partridge in a pear tree. And it’s all been designed to be too much to take in, but in a good way.
“That’s the crazy ambition of the piece is that we’re telling 35 stories at the same time,” says stage director Erin Gilley.
“You could see it five times and still miss something,” says producer Libby.
To avoid ruining any illusions, the Speakeasy has all patrons set up a tab ahead of time so there are no modern credit cards or cash. Instead, a wooden nickel with an account number is flashed for drinks, food, or gambling chips.
Additionally, cell phones are locked aware in reception-proof pouches, preventing any interruption of the song and dance. Olivero was so moved by how sound affects perception that he hasn’t taken his phone off silent since their first performance four years ago.
“Music plays a huge part of this,” says music director Nick Perez. “There’s music in every room whether it’s live or prerecorded.”
In addition to jazz, gambling and craft cocktails, the evening is also riddled with fisticuffs.
“We’ve got some good violence,” says Gilley.
“Yeah, there are thirty-two fight calls in the show,” says Gluck.
Still a little confused, we sat down with producer Geof Libby and asked him a few questions.
Why is this being done in San Francisco?
I would say San Francisco is our home. It’s been Boxcar’s home for ten years, it’s been my home as a human being and an artist for eleven years now. And this is the city that we live in and the city we love.
When the space became available to us in North Beach, which is the epicenter of crime and intrigue and all of that from that era, it just seemed like maybe it was the perfect fit for taking the show to the next level.
On the border of Chinatown, do the Tongs come into play?
Not specifically. We do have two false fronts though. One is an Italian clock repair shop and one is a Chinese laundry.
1923 was pretty racist. Is that something you address?
Absolutely, we deal with racial tension, sexism. We don’t shy away from difficult subjects in the show. While there is a lot of light hearted comedy and beautiful dance happening we also get into a lot of more difficult, touchy subjects. And they’re absolutely just as relevant today as they were in the 1920s.
There’s liquor service in the show. Do the servers and bartenders have stories as well?
Yes. We have many servers. We have multiple bartenders — one of whom is clearly a part of the show, one of whom is a little more involved in making sure that you have what you need. But it’s a little bit blurry as to who’s in it and who isn’t and the more we develop, the more those folks become integrated into the world more seamlessly.
Are the drinks period correct, too?
They’re all based in the prohibition era and pre-Prohibition era style. They’re all spirit driven cocktails. At the end of prohibition and after, that’s when you start getting a lot of fruit and mixes thrown into the drinks. During prohibition the alcohol was terrible and you had to do whatever you could to hide the taste. [Secondly] all those punches and things started to catch on and they ripped through to the 50s.
And these early prohibition, pre-prohibition cocktails are all spirit forward, very simple ingredients, three four ingredients per cocktail.
So you’ve done some bartending?
I have. I’ve worked off and on as a bartender, bar manager for about fifteen years, as well as being an actor and a builder.
Care to mention any bars where we might have gotten a drink from you?
Sure. I worked for eight years at Solstice up at California and Divisadero before they closed. That was my second family. Also their sister bar, Fly Bar. I’m currently refusing all shifts at the Fox Theater, where I work in the Telegraph room.
Beer is just light or dark?
It’s part of the fun of the experience. In the the first show we had one of our patrons ask our servers if we had Grey Goose. And she said, “Grey Goose? No, we don’t serve food.” So people ask us what kind of beer we have, we say: “cold.” I mean what more can you ask? You want to go back to your house where there’s no alcohol or back up to the street where you can’t find a drink anywhere? You’re lucky to be in here where we got anything at all.
There’s a casino, too. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I wanted to spend all night in there…
You can absolutely do that.
What games go on in there?
Roulette, craps, blackjack. And the occasional hanky panky.
Where those period correct as well?
Absolutely. We actually custom built craps tables for the space that are based on original layouts that we found in photo archives from the period.
Are there prizes to be won or is it purely for fun?
I wouldn’t say purely, but it is only for fun. It’s not so pure. Surprisingly, the casino is very popular, or perhaps not so surprising. With nothing to lose, people have a really good time betting big. Also, practically, it’s a great place to learn how to play craps. Rather than losing $500 to spend twenty minutes kind-of-learning how to play a game, you can lose ten dollars and gamble for an evening.
Do the games continue as scenes take place?
There’s an ebb and a flow in every room and it’s probably most pronounced in the Casino because people get drawn into the games that they’re playing. But there are times when we might flash into something different and the gambling would be halted by whatever sort of extreme moment we’re all taking in.
So the dealer would direct attention towards the scene rather than the game?
Exactly. And they’re in charge of the table, so if they’re holding the dice then the game’s on hold.
Have you had any problem customers? Is there a bouncer?
We have security, clearly for the safety of everyone involved and then we do also have our minders who are walking the space, keeping an eye on everyone and making sure that everyone is enjoying themselves without getting too excessive in their enjoyment. Because like any speakeasy, the moment anyone bursts out onto the street, screaming, it all comes crashing down. So we’ve got to make sure everyone stays cool while they’re there.
What’s the worst situation you’ve had with a patron?
Well, honestly, the worst thing that happened was when we had a guy pass out in our very first performance in our old space. That was the very first public performance. We had a guy pass out, we had to call an ambulance. We were thirty minutes into our experience and we had to put the whole thing on hold while the paramedics came in.
Was he startled by something?
It was warm… it was one of those things, he stood up quickly and got disoriented and fell down. He was fine in the end, he was totally fine.
I immediately assumed the show was a murder mystery. Is it?
It is not…It’s a human drama. It’s theater so everything’s heightened, but it’s not about how this rich aristocrat was murdered and let’s figure out who did it. That has no place in our show. It’s more about finding the excitement of all of the characters around you. And all the little things that you uncover within their larger stories.
Behind the scenes, each of our spaces has its own themes going on. There’s a lot of loss and longing in the bar. In the casino we focus on greed and excess, heart break. The cabaret is much more about luxury and extravagance, love and beauty.
So it’s like finding what you want to focus on in life?
In a lot of ways, yeah. You find that everyone, for the most part likes to have a sampling of everything.
Hmm…Greed and excess in the casino. Any triumph?
There definitely is some triumph. We have these two fantastic characters, Cliff and Leland who are kind of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’re grifters so they’re really at home in the casino, trying to make a quick buck. But they’re hustlers so they move about. You find out that at least one of them is trying to find the love of his life if he could just get the timing to work out and his buddy to shut up at the opportune moment.
Any other advice for the audience?
Don’t be afraid that you’re going to look stupid if you show up decked out in a 1920s suit. The only time you feel like you don’t belong is when you don’t go all in with this experience.