'The Speakeasy': A Reminder of S.F.'s Long History of Sticking It to the Man

Chorus girls and chanteuse Velma (Megan Wicks) in 'The Speakeasy', an immersive theater experience and 1920s era costume party in the heart of North Beach. (Photo: Peter Liu)

At a time when many municipalities across the land are bracing for the new political reality, San Francisco has wasted no time in thumbing its nose at the incoming administration’s ideas, from city officials issuing a public declaration of their disdain for the President Elect's policies, to the birth control startup Nurx shipping free contraception via the promo code "Donald Trump."

Of course, San Francisco possesses a long track record of willfully ignoring federal edicts. I was happily reminded of that fact when I paid a visit to The Speakeasy, a "choose your own adventure"-style theater experience that recently opened its doors at “a secret venue near Chinatown and North Beach.”

Brian Rosen and Clay David play a comedy double-act in The Speakeasy.
Brian Rosen and Clay David play a comedy double-act in The Speakeasy. (Photo: Peter Liu)

It aims -- if not completely succeeds, at least on an artistic level -- to recreate the atmosphere of the many clandestine nightspots that continued to sell hard liquor throughout the 1920s in the city, even as the rest of the country hobbled along dry-mouthed through the Prohibition years. (When San Francisco hosted the democratic convention only six months after the nationwide liquor ban, the mayor, according to the writer H. L. Mencken, treated delegates to “a carload of Bourbon whiskey, old, mellow and full of pungent but delicate tangs.")

At its best, The Speakeasy offers a liquor-and-dice-infused costume party with ultra-low-stakes gaming and a loving glance back to the vaudeville entertainments of yesteryear. At its worst, it's about as entertaining and corporate-feeling as a night out at a Reno casino, only without the possibility of walking out with bundles of cash.

Getting there is one of the highlights. The adventure begins down a dank North Beach back alley, where a few shady-looking types in flapper dresses, feather boas and fedoras wait for you to ask them a question about a pie. They give you a set of instructions that send you hastening around the block to a nondescript doorway, down a grungy set of stairs and through the suspended bedsheets of a fake laundry service.

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At last, you are met with a champagne cocktail and a wondrous sight: a splendid old-timey cabaret theater, complete with high-kicking chorus girls in red sequins and green eye makeup, and bowler hat-sporting comedians cracking gentle jokes about their wives.

Freddie Larson as Vinnie in The Speakeasy.
Freddie Larson as Vinnie in The Speakeasy. (Photo: Peter Liu)

From there, you can dawdle for a while over the various ventriloquist acts and music hall numbers accompanied by the spiffy live band, and then potter off to explore the joint at leisure.

You don't even have to start your journey in the cabaret; The Speakeasy’s several enclaves include a games room offering craps and poker, a secret “booth” in which you can spy on behind-the-scenes intrigues happening between the night-spot’s various lowlifes through a two-way mirror, and a saloon where a bartender will serve you a period cocktail while you watch the brawling antics of a bunch of local toughs.

But after what seems like an infinity of wandering about aimlessly with a cocktail glass in hand, throwing dice, and trying to avoid getting shoved by actors playing characters in various stages of inebriation or distress, things start to wear as thin as a mobster’s alibi.

The Speakeasy’s producers -- David Gluck, Geoffrey N. Libby and Nick A. Oliveiro -- have taken pains to create  narrative threads to help imbue the otherwise entertaining, nostalgia-laced commercialism of their enterprise with the sheen of serious theater.

As I moved around, I caught a smattering of melodramatically written and bombastically performed scenarios. These included a fight between a chorus girl and her boss about her troubled brother’s debt, and an innocent little girl’s first foray into San Francisco’s seedy nightlife after tagging along with her ne’er-do-well dad.

Megan Wicks as Velma in The Speakeasy.
Megan Wicks as Velma in The Speakeasy. (Photo: Peter Liu)

However, because guests can only physically be in one place at one time, it’s difficult to follow any particular plot-line unless you stay put in one place, spend the entire time following a single character around the building, or just get very lucky. Otherwise, you find yourself in the middle of a bunch of random, heavy-handed set-pieces that feel more like noisy intrusions on the drinking, gambling and chorus line-watching than coherent drama.

Then there’s the issue of how the space is designed. For a venue that the show’s producers custom-built for the very purpose of creating an immersive theatrical experience (the program notes draw attention to the 1058 “vintage reproduction ceiling tiles” and 1562 feet of molding used in the renovation) the architecture is curiously uncooperative.

Anthony Cistaro and Jessica Waldman in The Speakeasy.
Anthony Cistaro and Jessica Waldman in The Speakeasy. (Photo: Peter Liu)

Few 1920s speakeasies resembled cathedrals, of course. But the corridors and some of the rooms of The Speakeasy are so cramped and claustrophobic, that they frequently cause bottlenecks that make it hard for audience members to truly lose themselves in the experience. A couple of hours into the three-hour-long production, I was ready to get out.

As the sanctuary city of San Francisco continues to face off against the political storm, the ability to retreat to the warmth and laissez-faire of fringy, underground spaces will be ever more essential for its citizens. The Speakeasy provides people who might not ordinarily venture into such venues with a safe way to experience a corporate facsimile of the real thing. But starting at $85 a ticket, it's hardly a viable option for many locals seeking sanctuary in these contentious times.

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The Speakeasy is running indefinitely at a location in North Beach, San Francisco, the details of which are disclosed after you purchase tickets. For information and sales, click here.

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