After a combined four years or so in two different locations, Boxcar Theatre's immersive piece The Speakeasy is closing in three weeks, on August 4. In its place, the theater says, will be something new (and likely immersive), but it's not yet clear what that will be, or when that might open.
"The Palace Theatre (and Boxcar Theatre) are cookin' up some interesting surprises," according to an email announcement about the closing. And they're referring to the elaborately built out, multi-room space underneath China Live in North Beach that has been home to The Speakeasy since its relaunch in late 2016.
The Speakeasy opened originally in a different, more down-market space behind a storefront in the Tenderloin in January 2014, offering San Francisco theater-goers a new type of interactive, immersive theater experience that has delighted New Yorkers at Sleep No More for over eight years. There is no single story in The Speakeasy, but rather there are several plot-lines set in San Francisco in the 1920s, and a few main characters who can be followed around the multi-room set. Ticketed guests are first given cryptic instructions to meet someone with a certain color hat in an alley — in the revised North Beach version, these "ushers" meet people in Jack Kerouac Alley, discuss the particulars about where to enter the space around the corner across Broadway, given them gambling chips, and give them a wooden chip used to pay for drinks, which are then billed to a credit card. Also, there are rules, like no cellphones, and no heckling the performers.
There are two ways to start the experience, either in the cabaret or in the bar, with different scripts that then repeat during the night. After seeing the initial script play out, theater goers are urged to move on to the next room, and the Palace Theatre also includes passageways and a full-service casino where one could sit and play a few hands of Blackjack or roll the dice at Craps — with performers occasionally coming through to enact mini scenes in the larger narrative.
There's a crusty bartender, a shell-shocked World War I vet, a showgirl in an abusive relationship with a gangster, and a vaudevillian emcee who presides over the constantly rotating show in the cabaret. With multiple outside performers including contortionists, magicians, and musicians appearing on different nights and at different times along with The Speakeasy's regular cast, no two nights at the show are ever quite the same, and the experience of sitting for a half hour or more in the cabaret feels simply like a step back in time to a Jazz Age supper club — complete with actual cocktails and cocktail servers, and some talented singers.
The meat of the show itself isn't particularly engaging, with an ensemble of two-dimensional characters who you don't have time to get to know, and an onslaught of disjointed actions played out for drama's sake. The delight of The Speakeasy wasn't about that though — the reason it's had a nearly three-year run in North Beach following its initial outing in 2014 is because it's unique and uniquely analog, a place for SF's tech-obsessed populace to unplug and appreciate a piece of theater without being trapped in a traditional theater seat. Also, they encourage attendees to dress up in period costume — and we all know this is a town that loves a chance to don a costume.
Boxcar attracted a significant amount of investment to facilitate their move to North Beach, and those investors are likely pleased with the show's longevity. I look forward to seeing what they tackle next.
And if you haven't seen the show, most weekend nights are apparently sold out, but you may find some matinee openings here.