Why you should care
Because Prohibition never looked so good.
On a wet Friday night in San Francisco, I shelter under a store awning, searching for a woman with a yellow umbrella. “Where can I get a good cup of joe?” I say when I find her. Code word approved, she directs me to a shadowy man who slips my cellphone into an envelope, seals it and returns it to me. On the envelope is a hand-drawn map that directs me through the seedy streets of North Beach to a dilapidated building nearby. Here, a bored-looking security guard waves me onward.
This might sound like the start of a Raymond Chandler novel, but bear with me as I traipse down dark steps and along a dark corridor with a grandfather clock at the end. “Go Through Time!” instructs my map, so I cautiously pry open the clock’s face and squeeze through, emerging Narnia-like into another world, albeit a bustling underground speakeasy circa 1923 instead of a magical land. As feather-clad women shimmy around me, a lavishly dressed waiter escorts me to a table perfectly angled for watching cabaret performers high-kick their way through a dance number.
There are tough calls to make: Go with the showgirl romance, or the tragically obsessed fan?
This is The Speakeasy, a choose-your-own-adventure-style experiential theater where the audience becomes part of the storyline. When a chorus girl slaps her boyfriend and runs tearfully from the room, I follow, keeping track of her narrative as she passes through the bar to the dressing room (viewed through a two-way mirror) and on to the casino, where I stop to play a game of craps. I’m distracted by a raucous showdown between two gamblers. Around 40 actors perform every night (there are 81 people total, including crew), and many storylines intertwine — but there are only so many you can follow through the venue’s 9,000 square feet. There are tough calls to make: Go with the showgirl romance, or the tragically obsessed fan? A word of advice: Keep track of your companions when you enter, or you will spend the night in totally different worlds.
“It’s like doing seven plays at once,” director Nick Olivero tells me, and a hefty 1,487-page script backs up his statement. “There are different story arcs,” he says, with final viewing decisions lying with the guests, which means that people can visit multiple times and always experience something new. For example, there’s more than one secret entrance, Olivero says. And the exciting ending to the night? Well, that’s a surprise — no spoilers.
Immersive theater is an ever-popular genre, but funding makes it daunting for many companies. In The Speakeasy’s case, Olivero raised $3 million from investors, and that money is evident in the bar’s high-quality decor. The attention to detail is exquisite, from the reproduction vintage ceiling tiles down to the $800 high-tank (working!) toilets. But such touches come with an eye-watering ticket price of $110 — it’s worth it, but it does hurt.
Despite the fanciful nature of these intimate slices of life, The Speakeasy doesn’t veer away from the darker side, letting guests see the loss and loneliness caused by the characters’ ambition and overreaching, in addition to their triumphs. I departed with the realization that whatever the era, people suffer the same shortcomings.