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A Voyeur’s Playland

The “immersive theater experience” The Speakeasy returns in an explosion of Prohibition-era drinks, decor, and snooping.


Overlooking the 1920s-era cabaret, one of several sets in the 9,050-square-foot North Beach venue.

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Director Nick Olivero in character behind the (very real) bar.

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High-end furnishings and period details add to the production’s Prohibition-era vibe.

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Taking the speakeasy premise to its extreme, the production is housed behind a false storefront, a supposed clock repair shop, through which audiences file into the downstairs theater.

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The show’s producers paid special attention to minor props, such as the antique roulette table and custom-made craps table and poker chips.

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A cabaret dancer fixes her makeup in front of a two-way mirror, behind which the audience can sit and peep on characters away from the stage.

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On the subterranean level of the supersecret North Beach address where Boxcar Theater is preparing to host The Speakeasy, the elaborate “immersive theater experience”–slash–cocktail lounge it’s rebooting this winter, there’s a wall of phones. Pick up one of the 16 vintage receivers, and suddenly you can eavesdrop on a conversation happening in the room next door.

Around the corner, there’s a two-way mirror looking into the dressing room used by the cabaret dancers prepping for their number on the nearby stage. And over here, a secret door—itself behind the false storefront hiding the entire venue below.

After two years spent relocating and expanding, The Speakeasy finally opened to press previews in December. Created in the vein of the hit New York immersive play Sleep No More, the production features a cast of 35 actors entangled in a web of plotlines inside a Prohibition-era nightclub. Actors and patrons rub shoulders together throughout the 9,050-square-foot set, which also includes a cabaret and a casino.

And then, of course, there’s the bar, overseen by coproducer Geof Libby, which serves as more than just a prop. Patrons can purchase wooden nickels, which they use to buy very real drinks at the rail, including some jazzed-up classics like the Black Manhattan (bourbon, Averna amaro, bitters) and the Italian Cowboy (gin, Campari, Fernet-Branca). Attendees can also buy a membership, which allows for repeated viewings and access to a secret bar menu.

The drinks aren’t the only things that have been selected for maximum authenticity here. Director Nick Olivero jokes that The Speakeasy’s toilets—1920s pull-chain models—cost about as much as the entire budget of earlier Boxcar productions. After The Speakeasy originally staged a 75-night run of sold-out shows in 2014 in the Tenderloin, the building was sold, so Boxcar was forced to find a new home. That led to the much larger North Beach digs and called for a bigger budget—$3.5 million, from $800,000. For now, the production run is open-ended.

Originally published in the January issue of
San Francisco 

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