I met the man in the blue hat at the appointed hour in an alley in North Beach, uttered the code phrase, got a map to a secret location nearby, entered through a dark doorway, descended a steep flight of stairs, checked my coat — and found myself in a San Francisco Prohibition-era dream world of sorts, from which I emerged, two and a half hours later, as entertained and entranced, in this utterly immersive and beautifully realized experience, as I’ve ever been.
“The Speakeasy,” a theater piece created by Boxcar Theatre’s Nick A. Olivera with a script by Olivero and Bennett Fisher, directed by Olivero and several others, is an environment as smoothly controlled and elegantly period-perfect (Olivero and Geoffrey Libby, scenic design) as you can imagine, right down to the ladies’ room itself.
Performers (excellent and seemingly straight out of Central Casting, in gorgeous period costumes, makeup, hair and wigs) include speakeasy patrons, bouncer, club owner, bartender, a few children and croupiers. There are also musicians and cocktail servers — 81 cast and crew members per night.
We the audience, compliant in cocktail or period attire, drifted through various rooms and hallways — the bar, the casino, the cabaret and more — at our own volition. The action — singing, dancing, barroom brawls, inebriated quarrels, vaudeville routines, poignant confessions, histrionics — is continuous.
There is never not something to see and hear, and it’s all so engaging that it’s hard to tear yourself from one scenario to another.
I started out at a small table in the bar, where gray-haired Tom (Rasa Hill), on a barstool, was holding forth loudly and pedantically about the intricacies of salesmanship.
When a self-declared war hero and his shell-shocked pal wandered in, the post-World War I ambiance briefly turned surreal, as the troubled soldier’s inner world materialized, complete with mustard gas, marching soldiers, gas masks and explosions.
Pushing aside curtains, opening mysterious doors and, one time, sliding apart a false bookcase, I came across other imaginatively artsy scenes: a slow and agonized dance around a gaming table in the casino, a Depression-era “tent city.”
I also spied on chorus girls in their dressing room, peered through peepholes to watch the godfather-like club owner wheeling and dealing and overheard a few shocking conversations.
Before leaving, I returned to the bar. Tom was in a drunken, apparently racially motivated dustup with a black patron; I don’t know why, because I’d been watching the sexy chanteuse Velma (Megan Wicks) having an embarrassing drug- and alcohol-fueled meltdown in the cabaret. That was after my encounter with her in the hallway, where she was having a hissy fit because she had to share her dressing room with the chorus girls.
Your experience might be entirely different, and equally out of his world.
Where: Secret San Francisco location (revealed with ticket purchase)
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $85 to $650 (for 10 visits)