San Francisco has long been a city that loves its clandestine locations, secret passwords, and themed parties. I'm not talking about prissy clubs that shut people out, but rather theatrical productions where a huge part of the thrill is in knowing that everything about the gathering, from its location to its duration, is temporary. It's a huge reason why my friends and I sought out raves here in the '90s, underground dinners in more recent years, and this amazing performance that I can't recommend highly enough, The Speakeasy, now.
Part of what makes The Speakeasy such a special event are the number of intricate layers revealed – about the storyline, the set, and your experience with both – as you go along. You buy your ticket online and await instructions on where to meet up on the appointed night. You're given passwords and strict instructions on staying mum over the course of the evening. And you're rewarded for playing along with access to a labyrinth set where secret passageways offer some of the best seats in the house.
The Speakeasy is less a straight narrative and more a choose-your-own-adventure collection of character studies of the folks who populate a San Francisco speakeasy in the 1920s. There are the mob bosses and the showgirls, the fallen heroes and the families they (tried to) leave behind. The dramatic tension here is romantic and political, it comes out through dialogue, song, and dance, and it's performed in the chair next to you one moment and behind glass the next.
For those who've seen Sleep No More, the fantastic New York predecessor to this roaming theatrical concept, there are similarities between the two pieces. With both events you start in one place and decide where to go next. Attending the performance more than once will give you different insights into the storylines and endings. And sometimes characters will speak to you directly, which is really fun. But while Sleep No More was a giant maze spread out over multiple floors with a penchant for the avant guard, The Speakeasy is more compact, cozy, and cohesive (not to mention it has great musical numbers). It also feels very San Francisco in more than just concept. The narrative theme of coming to this city to make your fortune, and then watching that dream become a fantasy, is something that repeats throughout the ages here. And it's especially poignant now.
If you're thinking about going:
Buy your ticket now.
Like right now. The Speakeasy runs through the end of
April [Update: the show has been extended through May now], every Thursday through Saturday night with staggered entry times, and many of the weekend performances are already sold out. Tickets aren't cheap at $70 a pop, but they are worth every penny, especially when you think of all the work that went into transforming not only the actors (who range in age from kids to seniors), but the space as well, into an all-consuming experience. This is a $200,000 production, and it shows.
There are 35 actors in the show, and the audience visually fills out the extra roles in a magical way. There are plenty of moments throughout the night where you don't know if the person next to you is in the show or not, until they belt out a line. The Speakeasy instructions ask that everyone dresses up, and in period wear if possible. Take that seriously – there's no way to overdress here, but you can definitely be underdressed. I loved the women who came to the show looking like flappers and the men with them in suspenders. I hated seeing a couple dressed like they were going hiking. The play is a communal effort, and a quick trip to Goodwill for a costume will add to everyone's mood. Besides, this being San Francisco, you've gotta have some costumes in that closet.
Seriously, leave the phones off.
The Speakeasy casts a spell that transports us back to the olden days of San Francisco. One idiot who can't leave his phone in his pocket breaks the spell (as one idiot sadly did for a few minutes last weekend).
Bring your credit card.
There's a bar that pours delicious beers and cocktails for five and ten cents (ahem, $5 and $10).
Take advantage of being able to move between rooms.
You'll know when you should stay seated and when it's ok to meander. Definitely explore everything that looks inviting, so long as there aren't signs saying keep out. Planting yourself in what seems like a way station between rooms can offer just as much drama as the rooms themselves.