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San Francisco’s immersive theaters experiences are always clever and we all remember our turkey leg mess at a Renaissance or Christmas Fair. But the Boxcars Theatre THE SPEAKEASY SF is a terrific mind blowing and pure SF theatre at its best. Now in performance through February 24th at a secret location in North Beach. Travel down some steps and we find ourselves in a prohibition era world. The evening started with me forgetting the password, and the speakeasy staff on queue waved me off; he could not help me. Fortunately my guest knows how to memorize his lines and he recalled the correct phrase to get us past the entry line. The speakeasy host then was very welcoming after he heard the correct line; he then briefed me on the details to follow a map to get to the secret underground venue. My guest and I gave up our cell phones and to agreed to talk “speak easy” while at the club. I followed a map through old Chinatown and North Beach that was definitely part of the experience passing those yummy restaurants. Once I found the address, I entered an old clock shop and passed through a large grandfather clock, and was transported back in time to 1923 San Francisco Speakeasy bar and club.

The venue includes a cast of 35 plus staff. Once I passed back in time the action began as Dorothy a high class lush, played by the infectious Jessica Lea Risco, asked me to buy her a gin. The script is 1500 pages and over 14 hours of material, if it was all played out scene by scene. But this story and event all plays out at once, stories and action happen all around you, in seven rooms that include a full working casino, two full size bars, hallways and lobbies that lead to back stage action with the showgirls and more. In 9,000 square feet the story is happening simultaneously in different rooms, it can be overwhelming and I was told it would take 4 to 5 visits back to 1923 to experience the whole story.

Orchestrated by three directors, four stage managers, a crew of customers, two chorus directors, three lighting designers, two sound designers, two scene designers, a pair of choreographers, a music director and fight captains, the experience is one not to miss. Producer, creator and writer Nick Olivero is a genius of creativity to bring this project full circle. Olivero was interviewed by Sam Devine and told him “about six years ago while I was filling a theater with sand for a beach-themed play - at two or three o’clock in the morning that this idea came to me like a vision.” The first take was performed in an old library back in 2014 and did very well, sold out and Olivero was convinced a larger more permanent production should be mounted.

The Speakeasy has a nightly staff of around 75 and can legally hold 225 patrons, an unenviable ratio for any performance hall of approximately three to one ratio. That means you get the best attention from actors to staff. Olivero is a perfectionist for detail and made sure his 1920 experience was not invaded by present day influences. He argued with the city about the use of exit signs “I fought with our architects and with the Fire Department and the Building Department,” he says in an interview in the SF Chronicle by Lily Janiak, “There’s now an ‘aesthetic plan’ for the exit sign - If there was a thing that I could exploit, I tried to get it done.” He asked, “Does it have to be red? Can it be green, can I change the font - It pains me when things aren’t perfect. I want people to come in and go, ‘I’m in 1923.’ I want them to feel that from the drinks, and napkins.”

Olivero has raised 3 million for this expanded Speakeasy and purchased an old movie theatre for his transformation. In addition to himself he has brought aboard producers, David Gluck and Geof Libby, who say this is “illicit bar, crooked casino, vaudeville cabaret and immersive theater adventure.” Director Erin Gilley says this is a perfect overload “That’s the crazy ambition of the piece is that we’re telling 35 stories at the same time.” I do agree this can overload you with the many peoples lives this ongoing story tells. Co-Directors Lea Gardner, Michael French and Olivero all made sure each story and action smoothly tales into the next. We are told if want to try to follow some of the arch or the action look for a man in a yellow hat and watch his next move as a tip to where to locate to. I did not see this man in the yellow hat, but it didn’t matter, I moved through the space easy enough and discovered this full throttle energy on my own.

A father, an overworked union organizer, Archie, is one character to watch for, played powerfully by local favorite Adam Simpson. Archie with a head injury, is mostly drunk during his appearances in constant rage; he has been on strike for weeks. We discover he failed in a confrontation with the police. His adorable daughter Sarah who only knows the Speakeasy as her playground is played superbly by Violet Gluck, it is awkward to see children in the cast, yet authentic to the issues of those times. To follow Archie’s story you have to move fast with him to the casino and later as he throws up his dinner in front of some shocked patron members in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

The set designers, Geoffrey Libby and Olivero, have created a stylistic space to play these stories out, including a backstage view of the chorus girls dressing room. Actors Cirra Eis, Hannah Jester, Melissa Rivera, CC Sheldon, and Velma, played by the sexy, vibrant Megan Wicks are in constant drama backstage. It is easy to spend too much time listening to their gossip and miss the other action out in the halls. The boss’s son Jimmy visits the girls often, played by the foolproof Aaron Kitchin, with some flowers in hand waiting to visit with his favorite girl. Local favorite Clay David and Brian Rosen play two vaudeville performers Oliver and Jefferies that we first meet in the Cabaret.They are perfect on stage and later worry about their jobs. There are many outstanding performances too many to mention, including Anthony Cistaro and the grand Emcee, Kenneth Heaton, as the worried Harold, the wonderful Brian Martin as Cliff who sings in the bar and is a charmer.

The directors and writers attempt to keep the show run time to 3 hours with a format they call “Speakeasy Timing of Events”. It’s minute-by-minute for each of the acts set for every room, then for each actor. Olivero says “we want to keep pushing the ball forward from a dramatic point of view, so that they’re constantly moving forward on their journey - I describe it to the actors that everyone’s in their own version of ‘King Lear,’ where they’re Lear,” he says, and “the Cordelias, and the Kings of France of other people’s ‘Lear.’”

The creative team for this adventure back in time includes some of the best creative talents in Bay Area theatre: Musical Director Benjamin Prince has live music throughout most of the club, featuring a five piece band. Resident Music Director Nick Perez joins the story in the main bar also guiding the cast through some iconic “Blue Skies” “I Love a Piano” and “California Here I come”. Sound design by the capable Matthew Stines, with amazing important props by Kyle Nitchy. The cabaret has a complex lighting set up designed by Allen Willner, Gabe Maxon and Brad Peterson, and all the rooms use dramatic pools of light to add mood to important movement scenes choreographed by Liz Etler and Kim Lester.

The lighting in the bar and casino is subtle and designed into the texture of the rooms, you only notice the dramatic moods for dance moves or monologues. The stage in the main room has the standard theatrical set up and the chorus girl show is likable and features the pitch perfect voice of Megan Wicks. The costumes are designed by Abra Berman and she brings the authentic class of the era and the women in sleek 20’s style. I also was impressed with the dress of the audience who are easy to confuse with the players. The bars are live and drinks are plenty. A menu of ten drinks advertised at 4 cents to 12 cents but, of course, work out to dollars. As you enter the club you are handed a sparkly Bubble Baby as you move up the drink scale to the hard Black Manhattan. It is easy for many of the speakeasy patrons by the end for the 2nd hour to get a bit tipsy and tend to interact more with the actors.

One of producers/designers of the Speakeasy, Geof Libby, explained this is no murder mystery and not a who done it story line “It’s a human drama. It’s theater so everything’s heightened - It’s more about finding the excitement of all of the characters around you. And all the little things that you uncover within their larger stories. Behind the scenes, each of our spaces has its own themes going on. There’s a lot of loss and longing in the bar. In the casino we focus on greed and excess, heart break. The cabaret is much more about luxury and extravagance, love and beauty.”

It is a very white washed cast, I was told there is some diversity in the cast, but I didn’t see that. Casting Director Dena Martinez keeps the look plausible to 1923, when segregation was paramount. Yet I overheard a group of young Asian patrons comment on the white cast, pointing out in 1923, San Francisco was diverse especially with the overcrowded Asian community where this Speakeasy is home too. Libby pointed out “we deal with racial tension, sexism. We don’t shy away from difficult subjects in the show. While there is a lot of light hearted comedy and beautiful dance happening we also get into a lot of more difficult, touchy subjects. And they’re absolutely just as relevant today as they were in the 1920s.”

The cast, in my opinion, are all featured players since each one of them has their moment somewhere in the immersive action and they include: David Magidson, Tony Agresti, Rachael Richman, Brent King, Dustin Katz, Jessica Lea Risco, Holly Silk, Robert Molossi, Theresa Miller, Tavis Kammet, Robert Faltisco, Ken Heaton, Mark Vashro, Zach Eulberg, Joe Yiakis, Jason Pienkowski, Cooper Carlson, Brian Raffi, Tom Roman, Robert Johnson, Leigh Ann Cannon, Mary Samson, Mark Nassar, Edythe Dunn, Rasa Hill, Freddy Larson, Jessica Waldman, Jessica Uher, Katie Paige, Cindy Head, Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos and Tyler Parks

This is immersive theater is engrossing, riveting and I was taken in and sent back to prohibition San Francisco. This Boxcar Theatre production is the highlight of the 2016 theatre season in the Bay Area. Booze, showgirls, bar fights, gambling, live music, love and heartbreak are all SF SPEAKEASY. A true San Francisco experience and is sure to become a staple of North Beach as their neighbor “Beach Blanket Babylon” has become. The run is currently open ended through Feb 24, and is easy to book. Be sure to dress for the party and an extraordinary evening with the cast of this grand experience. It is a MUST SEE.

The Box Car Theatre Presents

The Speakeasy

Illicit bar, crooked casino, vaudeville cabaret, immersive theatre adventure

Created by Nick A. Olivero

Written by Bennett Fisher and Nick A. Olivero

Directed by Michael French, Leah Gardner, Erin Gilley, Nick A. Olivero

Produced by David Gluck, Geoffrey Libby and Nick A. Olivero

Through Feb 24th 2017

SF North Beach

Secret San Francisco location (revealed with ticket purchase)

8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays

Three Hours no intermission

Tickets $85 to $650 (for 10 visits)

Photos by Peter Liu.

Interviews courtesy of :

Sam Devine for

Lily Janiak for the SF Chron

LAUREN FAIR writer for

Leslie Katz SF Examiner



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