Speakeasy Dollhouse

Culture Watch
tags: Abraham Lincoln, theater reviews, plays, John Wiles Booth

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

There are a dozen ‘immersive theater’ shows in New York, from Queen of the Night to Sleep No More to the upcoming Tony and Tina’s Wedding. One of the most opulent is Speakeasy Dollhouse, a unique piece of immersive theater that lures guests into an old mansion and the middle of a sprawling story set in 1919, the night Prohibition began.

After uttering a password, guests are given an ‘authentic’ 1919 newspaper and ushered through the delivery entrance of the mansion that sits on tree-lined Gramercy Park in New York. The mammoth building is the former home of acting great Edwin Booth, whose brother John Wiles Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln back in 1865. It is the night before a statue of Edwin Booth is to be unveiled in the park and the partygoers, all downing drinks at a record pace, are dancing to a small band of musicians in white dinner jackets, listening to singers and admiring the expensive surroundings. Edwin Booth’s daughter, Edwina, thanks all for arriving and then, like a bolt of lightning, a tall, tattooed circus performed appears and howls that the ghosts of John Wilkes and Edwin Booth will soon be back to set the story straight, that perhaps the actor was not killed in a  barn in Virginia after the Lincoln assassination and that perhaps he did not shoot Lincoln because he was an ardent supporter of the South but, in fact, to finally get more recognition than his older and far more famous brother.

That incident kicks off the theatrical story that takes place in the middle of the Prohibition party. Like all immersive theater pieces, the tale is told in scenes set throughout the house by several dozen performers. At the same time, actors at the party mingle with the guests and tell parts of the story. By the end of the long night, nearly three hours, after you meet numerous actors, the story is finished. Guests had a chance to take part in the party, drink, dance and socialize while following the story, often running after the actors as they move from room to room.

Speakeasy Dollhouse is great fun and a wonderful night in 1919. It is very different from regular theater. Guests go to a party and see a play at the same time. You also get a chance, as I did, to get up close to Booth, the most notorious villain in national history.

The strength of Speakeasy Dollhouse is threefold. 1) you learn much history 2) you go to a fine party with an orchestra and dancing, 3) you see a relatively interesting play take place in a variety of rooms. It is a unique experience. The night I was there I got to talk to the tattooed circus performer, Edwin Both, a uniformed cop, an undercover security officer, a fortune teller and a flapper whose long red gloves did not go with her black dress at all (I know, I’m picky).

In short, you have a hell of a good time, regardless of the quality of the story.

The real fun for me was being jostled by the crowd in one scene and pushed to the front row to watch the Booth brothers engage in a sword fight. One of them missed stabbing me by just inches.

Speakeasy Dollhouse has its weaknesses. First and foremost, there are too many people in the Booth mansion. The crowds that forced their way into rooms to watch the scenes unfold were too large and you could hardly see what was going on in some scenes. Second, there was too much going on at the same time. It was hard to watch a scene and listen to dialogue while a band was playing in a ballroom down the hall. Third, the mansion was not well lit. A man fell down some stairs near me and was nearly hurt. These will be fixed, I am sure.

That story was interesting. The writers contend that John Wilkes Booth shot the President to become more famous than his brother and to impress a young lady. At the same time, the writers claim that Booth survived the assassination manhunt and lived for many years. His body was even mummified and carried around in a circus. All of the wild, unsubstantiated rumors of the Lincoln murder are re-told and there are frequent confrontations between the Booth brothers and Edwin Booth and his sons, who are also actors. If there were more scenes and if they were held together in a smoother fashion, the show would have worked even better.

Partygoers definitely learn a lot of history, about the Booths, Lincoln, the Volstead Act, that authorized Prohibition, and the way that illegal bars, the notorious ‘speakeasies,’ worked. You learn a great deal about Edwin Booth, whom people know little about. How does a man live forty more years, and successfully, too, after his brother has shot the President?

The cast is good. Skyler Max Gallun is young John Wilkes Booth, Ryan Wesen is the older Booth, Wiliam Otterson is Junius Booth, Eric Gravez is Edwin, Jonas Barranca is young Edwin Booth. Also: Dan Olsen as Henry Jones, Chrissy Basham as the fortune teller, Russell Farhang as John Drew, E. James Ford as John Sargent, Lord Kat as Mark Twain,  Victor Barranca as Edwin Quinn and  Samantha Rosentrater as Edwina Booth. They are aided by a strong ensemble troupe.  The show is written by Cynthia von Buhler and directed by Wes Grantom.

One real plus to the show is that during the days prior to the performance all guests are emailed pieces of information and photos pertaining to the history show, starting the action early.

Speakeasy Dollhouse is just plain fun.  Where else could you have a few drinks, dance all night and, in the hallway, in a chilling moment, come face to face with John Wilkes Booth?

PRODUCTION:  The play is produced by Stageworks Media, Sets: Cynthia von Buhler, Fight Choreography: Jonas  Barranca, Costumes: Tilly Grimes. The play is produced once each month. For ticket information:  speakeasydollhouse.com. The play has an open ended run.

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