‘Speakeasy’ wonderfully whisks guests to SF’s Prohibition era  

The bar is a busy spot at “The Speakeasy,” an immersive theater experience in a secret spot in San Francisco. (Courtesy Peter Liu)

You’re instructed to look for a man in a yellow hat on a street corner. He gives you the OK. You’re to head up Broadway, where you’ll whisper to a doorperson in a red hat, “Skip sent me.” You’re ushered into a dark passageway, descend several flights of dim stairs, batting your way through overhanging laundry. By day it’s Sam’s Laundry; by night, a secret, underground speakeasy.

It’s San Francisco, 1927. Charles Lindbergh is this very minute on his first solo flight across the Atlantic. The performers and, on an opening Friday night, most of the patrons, are in period-perfect attire—glitter, glamour, fedoras, feathers. Nary a cellphone in sight. (On Saturday nights costumes are a requirement and cellphones are strictly forbidden.)

You enter the main bar, which is in full swing already at 7 p.m. with a terrific little band and pianist on a tiny stage swinging through “All of Me” and other popular songs of the era amid the cacophony. You’re served a tiny free cocktail, but a big crowd of customers at the bar makes it difficult to order another drink. 

No matter. Part immersive theater, part time-traveling escape-from-reality event, musically retro in the best way, “The Speakeasy,” a Boxcar Theatre production, is a sort of paeon to the outlawed joys of alcohol and is a Sensurround delight. 

One of the best parts of the experience is simply wandering around the beautifully detailed venue, from the main bar to the casino (which you enter through a moveable bookshelf), down a staircase to the cabaret (where there’s an hour-long show), among all the dark and mysterious passageways. The scenic design by creator Nick A. Olivero and Geoffrey Libby is elegantly detailed right down to the ladies’ room. 

Cecilia Palmtag is Eddie the emcee in “The Speakeasy.” (Courtesy Valerie Guseva)

Every patron will have a different experience, and it’s easy to have an attack of FOMO — I wandered into the casino midstream when the croupier was having a little altercation with a sloppy-drunk patron, something to do with her snatching a painting off the wall.

This year’s rendition of “The Speakeasy” —created by Boxcar founder Olivero back in 2014 in a Tenderloin theater venue and suspended during the pandemic—was written by Olivero and Bennett Fisher, directed by Ciera Eis and Felicity Hesed, and is performed by a strong cast of about 20, many in multiple roles.

Since its origin, “The Speakeasy” has morphed into an event that’s less theatrical than it is playful, goofy living history with plenty of improv and audience-actor interaction. Performers portray the habitues of the speakeasy in various states of inebriation, and the entertainment in the cabaret is just as full of corny, vaudeville-style jokiness as you’d expect, plus the band and fine singers and chorus girls.  

The constant references to Lindbergh’s flight caused one audience member in the cabaret to shout out, “He was a Nazi!,” momentarily discombobulating the emcee, and indeed it’s a bit uncomfortable to realize how much people did idolize Lucky Lindy back then. 

I especially liked a poignant, quiet little scene in a dressing room (you spy on the performers through a window) between Eddie and his longtime performing partner, a downhearted ventriloquist (David Magidson). It’s one of the few scenes I saw that’s played not for laughs, although there is gentle humor in it, or (as in a few cases) to fill us in on the history of prohibition, or to just to entertain us for the sake of revealing real characters. 

In the cabaret, a buoyant tap-dancing act (Katie Baritell and Gregg Geoffroy) dressed as sailors stole the show (Amie Schow and Liz Martin’s costumes dazzle throughout). It was great fun for the folks in the audience to get to their feet at the end for a Charleston lesson led by a quartet of flapper-style chorus girls. 

If you want not just a theme but also a storyline, and characters with depth, other immersive theater shows do offer that. But right here, between two wars and in the middle of Prohibition, 100 years ago, it’s a wonderfully boozy, time-traveling party. 

“The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws” continues through June 23 at a secret location in San Francisco’s Chinatown/North Beach. More information and tickets ($65 to $304) are at thespeakeasysf.com.  

One thought on “‘Speakeasy’ wonderfully whisks guests to SF’s Prohibition era  

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *