A man in a red hat and a red scarf stands in front of a small cafe on an inconspicuous San Francisco street.
As I approach him, he looks around to see if anyone is watching. “Do you have a light?” I ask. He pauses, shoves a small envelope into my hand, and directs me down a small, unassuming alley. As I carefully make my way down past the trash-lined street, I begin to hear the sounds of 1920’s jazz emanating from the far end of the alley. I hurry toward the sound and find myself descending a stair case. I began to notice gin barrels strewn about the secret entrance as well as a live rat in a cage, hinting at a message to any would-be informant: “Rats get caged!”
I reach the bottom of the stairs and am greeted by a gentleman in a suit and fedora. With a slight accent, he welcomes me to The Speakeasy and offers to take my coat. He then pulls back a curtain, revealing a dazzling Cabaret, complete with a live band and a stage worthy of Miles Davis. I settle into a booth in the back and take a sip my complimentary glass of champagne, ready for the show to begin.
The first thing you notice when entering The Speakeasy is the attention to detail. With a permanent space, every inch of the location has been carefully designed to feel like you’ve stepped into 1923—and it adds beautifully to the immersion. The Speakeasy is composed of three main rooms: the cabaret (with on-going musical and comedy acts throughout the night), the bar (for those who want a drink and witness the drama inside), and the casino (where you can spend the night gambling at one of the many tables). But apart from the main rooms, participants can explore the many side rooms for unique insights into characters’ lives. These provide more intimate scenes for a smaller audience. Participants can watch from merely inches away, or for those with a more voyeuristic taste, they can watch the dressing room of the cabaret through a two-way mirror or listen in on the shady dealings of the owner’s office through a series of telephones.
But the real beauty of the experience is in the varied ways to experience it. Much like other AAA experiences like Sleep No More in New York, you can follow actors as they move from room to room. As different scenes unfold, you learn about the deep backstories of these characters. But unlike other experiences, The Speakeasy allows you to socialize among friends and with other guests. You don’t have to follow any actors—you can simply spend the night enjoying a drink watching the cabaret show or gambling in the casino. This aspect lends itself to the repeatability of the experience: follow a new character, play in a new room, and discover a new one-on-one interaction.
If you do spend the night following the narrative of an actor, the payoff is rewarding. The story-lines are strong and evocative and the themes are still pertinent today. The on-stage shows are fun, light-hearted, and truly entertaining. But once you begin to follow the characters, you uncover the darker side of the prohibition era. Themes of racism, xenophobia, and sexism begin to emerge. You see the heartbreak in a middle-aged woman with crushed dreams of being a performer, the addiction in a man who brought his daughter to the bar so he could have one more drink, and the hopelessness of a man who will never be anything more than mediocre. Although some story elements can be heavy handed at times (e.g., a long-winded musical number regarding the start of prohibition), the majority feel real and evoke emotion from its audience. And with a three to four hour experience, it is truly applaudable that the story never repeats. It was a surreal experience to watch a performer on stage then follow them from room to room as I learned about their real-life struggles.
My recommendation is to pick the earliest time-slot possible to maximize your time in The Speakeasy. Start in the Cabaret and enjoy the show until you are given reign to explore. Move to the bar and meet new characters while enjoying a drink. When you find a character you empathize with, follow them—and don’t be afraid to branch off to other characters. If you are looking for a one-on-one interaction, look for characters with a small audience and engage them when prompted. But ultimately, just enjoy yourself. The drinks are fantastic, the acts are engaging, and the acting is powerful.
The Speakeasy offers a perfect glimpse into 1920’s San Francisco. It succeeds in providing choice, allowing the audience to engage in a powerful narrative or simply have an entertaining evening with friends. It provides unparalleled immersion through gorgeous sets and an audience in their best themed attire. And it evokes emotion through superb acting focused on personal issues. The Speakeasy is truly a brilliant experience that should not be missed by any fans of immersive theater.