While most theater companies aspire to butts-in-seats full houses, Boxcar Theatre regularly moves its patrons out of the confines of tidy rows, onto raised platforms and even the stage. The group’s production of “The Speakeasy,” opening this week, takes the ongoing deconstruction of “all the world’s a stage” to an intriguing new level.
The eponymous venue of the piece is a bar, a casino and a cabaret, all circa 1923, when the country was dry with Prohibition — but spirited if you knew the secret password.
Boxcar Artistic Director Nick Olivero has been nursing this particular cocktail for almost a decade. To him, it feels like a logical next step for a company with the tag line “turning theater on its head,” which has staged performances on beaches, moving buses, in museums and on some of the grittier streets of San Francisco near its South of Market home base.
“People say that now we’re starting to do this ‘Sleep No More’ immersive thing,” he says, referencing the work of British theater company Punchdrunk. “But we’ve actually been doing work like this for 10 years or more.”
The “this” is an elaborate trip back in time where patrons enter a “Boardwalk Empire” world of rum runners, vaudeville performers, chorus girls, gamblers, bouncers and other characters whose stories are played out in front of, next to or behind you.
Dozens of actors, wait staff and operations folk run the show, which takes place continuously for more than three hours, with multiple story lines simultaneously performed in a half-dozen defined and interconnected playing spaces.
Patrons and actors can move from room to room through a secret panel in a painting or a retractable bookcase or watch other interactions through a one-way dressing room mirror.
Olivero’s favorite experiences involve engaging all the senses, so in “The Speakeasy,” you cannot only see the action and hear the music, but you can also touch the furnishings, smell a passing flapper’s perfume and, yes, taste your illegal liquor courtesy of the very active bar.
The experience is rich with possibility, and period attire is encouraged so it may not immediately be clear if the blonde siren or handsome rake at the next table is an actor or a ticket-holder.
The setup plays into Olivero’s confessed fondness for blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
“If theater is supposed to reveal some sort of truth,” he says, “then the truth should reveal theater, right?”
IF YOU GO
Presented by Boxcar Theatre
Where: Civic Center area, address given at time of ticket purchase.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through April 19
Tickets: $60 to $115
Contact: (415) 967-2227, www.thespeakeasysf.com