Sunday, March 17, 2019

"The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws"

The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws
Bennett Fisher & Nick A. Olivero
David Gluck, Geoffrey N. Libby & Nick A. Olivero, Producers
The Speakeasy, In Association with Boxcar Theatre

Em Lee Reaves
The year has advanced from 1923 to 1927.  Lucky Lindy flying in his Spirit of St. Louis is thirty-three hours into his heroic conquering of the skies over the Atlantic; skirts and stocks are all flying higher as optimism fills the air; and while Prohibition is still the law of the land, plenty of folks have found ways to be ‘scofflaws’: people who scoff at the law.

And in San Francisco ninety-two years later, merry revelers show up in back alleys, give a secret password, and then make their way to a unknown location somewhere on the border of North Beach and Chinatown to find Joe’s Clock shop and enter through a grandfather clock into the underground world of The Palace Theatre.  Women dressed in flapper dresses decorated with feathers and flowers, beads and rhinestones, and plenty of glitter and fringe and men donning suspenders and spats, gartered sleeves, and lots of black attire all have arrived for The Speakeasy’s latest version of Roaring Twenties fun, the 1927-dated version now entitled Age of Scofflaws.

As each person enters a darkened hallway richly decorated in reds, each carries an official “Treasury Department, U.S. Internal Revenue Prescription,” with all that ails to be cured with “one pint whiskey, one tablespoon every four hours.”  The revelers’ three-plus-hour evening begins either in a large multi-level nightclub; a bustling, crowded casino; or a bar with piano playing and drinks flowing among the many tables’ inhabitants.  In fact, drinking the offered exotic drinks is close to a requirement and will play a big part in the continued enjoyment of the evening as merrymakers begin to roam at will among the several rooms and many hallways, nooks, and crannies in this underground world of “illicit” jollity. 

With over twenty-five actors, musicians numbering seven, and a script purportedly of 1500 pages, The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws – written by Bennett Fisher and Nick A. Olivero as were the 2014 premiere and the 2016 remount that has run continuously ever since – is an incredible accomplishment for the production’s not one, but three directors (Michael French, Leah Gardner, and Nick A. Olivero).  Throughout the night, not only are there ongoing stage shows of comedians, singers, and dancers, there are also multiple, ongoing “happenings” and interactions occurring at any given moment, in any given setting.  With most of the paying guests dressed in their own costumes, it is often a surprise that the period-attired person standing or sitting nearby suddenly is interrupting the evening with drunken slurs, angrily throwing cards at the Blackjack dealer, or accusing a waitress of infidelity. 

Sal (Mark Nassar) with Two Cast Members
Partygoers have the choice of staying mostly in one place to see what develops in that venue, roaming aimlessly around and running into ‘action’ along the way, or following faithfully a particular character room to room (one probably named right out of The Untouchables with a nomenclature like Vinnie, Sal, Mickey or Velma, Viola, Virginia).  The result, as touted by the company itself, is that each partyer is bound to experience a very different evening from all others.  To experience all the different storylines, characters, and dramas/comedies, a number of visits, we are told, are necessary.

While there is not an overall, evident plot for the evening, by chance or by purposeful following, individual storylines do begin to develop.  In our visit, a young, dapperly dressed man named Eugene (Luke Myers) makes it past a scrutinizing Vinnie (Tom Osborne) at the always locked door with a sliding slit for peering out.  Eugene wanders into the bar with eyes wide as half-dollars and a tentative, scared look all about him, only to be noticed and encouraged to have his first-ever drink by the loud, gregarious storyteller, Tom (Kevin Copps) who has been keeping us all entertained in between the honky-tonk piano playing of Elyse Weakley.  As Eugene spills all his worst fears of what will happen if he takes that first shot of gin, lights come down; and a bar-filling dream scene occurs down the center aisle, populated by everyone from gangsters to a teatotaler crusader to a drunken woman Dorothy (Cecilia Palmtag) who has already been pulled down from wanting to dance on amiable bartender Mac’s (Maurice Williams) bar.  Eugene does take that first drink, and his decreased inhibitions lead him to an evening he probably never expected to happen upon entering.

Totally by chance, my hubby and I get to witness further chapters of Eugene’s evening, including a scene as we were passing through a large hallway full of plush couches -- one on which we sat, soon to be joined by Eugene and another young man who evidently works in the casino, Clyde (Robert Kittler).  The initial attraction between the two evidently occurred at a time we were not in the casino, but the scene between the two hesitant wanna-be lovers that plays out around us (with suddenly piped in music and highlighted, special lighting) is nothing short of romantically beautiful and moving – especially considering the time is 1927.  As it turns out, there is another who has been that night attracted to Eugene (Leland, Liam Callister), who after a few too many is now voicing loudly his feeling betrayed (earlier threads of the story we have also missed).  Lucky for us, a final chapter of Eugene’s story will occur as the evening winds down; and we are in the right place at the right time.

And Eugene’s is just one of many threaded tales, others of which we happen to see glimpses; others, we probably never saw at all.  But being at The Speakeasy is not always just a passive experience.  When I arrived, the glad-handed boss and owner, Sal (Kevin Copps) greeted me as if I were an old friend, kibitzing and hugging me with both friendliness and a certain reverence.  Later in the evening as I was enjoying the jazz singing and soft-tap dance of Roland’s (Dedrick Weathersby) “Harlem Strutters’ Ball,” a serious-looking dude in black suit came to get me and took me (alone) to Sal’s office.  Calling me Giuseppe and identifying me as the local, honored consigliore, I am asked to give advice what to do about the Lorenzo Brothers, who that evening have intercepted Sal’s truck-load of smuggled alcohol and have sent to Sal in a wooden box the driver’s thumb (which I unfortunately get to see as proof).  Pulling out my best Sicilian self, I played into the scene as best I could (“Get the sons-of-bitches”) and received his lifelong allegiance and thanks (and another big Italian hug).  I later discovered the scene that played out was being watched through a two-way mirror by partyers who picked up old phone receivers to listen to it all.

And I am sure such scenes and other like them occurred all night in this office, in the dance line’s dressing room (another venue with a hidden mirror for all us passing voyeurs), or in corners and couches tucked away throughout the large venue.  Just as most of us in attendance are boozing it up during the evening, many of the actors’ characters are likewise as part of their storyline having a few too many.  As the third hour of the evening hits, the noise level everywhere increases (not from us, since we as ticketholders have been explicitly warned to “speak easy” and only in whispers to order more drinks). 

One example is the final appearance of nightclub and bar singer, Velma Louise Cole (Em Lee Reaves), a deep, smoky voiced chanteuse who in elegant art-deco look has entertained us throughout the night with songs of the era, including “Some of These Days” and “I Love a Piano.”  But when she slightly stumbles to the stage and even whisks the piano player away, she false-starts several love songs before complaining with a slur, “Why do I have to sing about love all the time?”  Em Lee Reaves’ Velma then stuns us all, ‘passing out’ with a fall off the stage that is difficult not to believe she could do so without ending up in the hospital.

The scores -- if not hundreds -- of planned, scripted interactions and events such as the few noted here that fill the evening are supported by a creative team where few flaws are ever evident.  Somehow, lights dim, focus, shift, and go full-lit at just the right moments to focus on specific and general actions and events in multiple locations at the same time – all thanks to the outstanding design of Allen Willner, Gabe Maxson, and Brad Peterson.  The same occurs for sound effects and piped-in music as designed by one of my personal Bay Area favorites, Matthew Stines. 

Ralph Hoy’s multitude of costumes are eye-popping and a show unto themselves as scantily clad flappers dance in beads and spangles; gangster types roam around in their black suits and studded collar pins; and bar patrons arrive with their life stories highly evident by just the manner of period clothes they wear.  The wonderfully designed interiors, secret entrances through the likes of paintings and bookshelves, and the authenticity of everything from lamps to microphones to phones are the artistic results of scenic designers Geoffrey Libby and Nick A. Olivero as well as props designer, Kyle Nitchy.  Choreographers Elizabeth Etler and Kimberly Lester ensure high-kick dance lines, Charleston swinging dancers on tables, and soft-shoe interludes are all well-executed.  Somehow, the three directors have the ability to get the right characters to the right spots time and again throughout the three hours and to have each sudden entrance seem totally spontaneous and each interaction to be one that has no script, but of course does.  Finally, Musical Director Joe Wilcockson has planned the era’s live music that permeates through a five-piece band in the nightclub and a piano player and various singers in the bar area.

The Speakeasy is one of several ‘only in San Francisco’ events that we residents are so lucky to be able to attend and to offer to take our out-of-town guests.  The recently premiered Age of Scofflaws retains all the fun and fascination of the original show and many of the same, core characters; but the new storylines, actors, and songs to match the new timeline of May 21, 1927, beg a deserved, return visit by past patrons and welcome a continual parade of new revelers to an evening of laughs, surprise, musical enjoyment, and of course, the forbidden booze.

Rating: 5 E

The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws continues in a secret venue somewhere near Chinatown and North Beach in San Francisco.  Appointments can be scheduled at the present time through July 27, 2019 online for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at 

Photos: The Speakeasy

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