Such a devil-may-care attitude may be surprising in everyday life, but it is completely suitable for Speakeasy Dollhouse, the immersive theater experience created by Cynthia von Buhler. Inspired by the murder of her real-life grandfather Frank Spano, whose mysterious death remains unsolved to this day, Speakeasy Dollhouse takes place in a Prohibition-era speakeasy housed atop a bakery and barbershop which also serve as entrances to the bar. Guests at Speakeasy Dollhouse are invited to interact with the, “Ladies and gentlemen, flappers and dappers!” of the era, all of whom have secrets and ulterior motives which are revealed as the night continues.
von Buhler, who designed and built an actual dollhouse and written a book about her grandfather’s murder, has created an impressively detailed experience that spans several years as well as thrilling and delighting all of the senses. Before arriving at the Dollhouse, guests receive several e-mails from von Buhler that contain information and evidence about the murder as well as the secret password they need to be granted access to the Dollhouse. Police records, autopsy reports, a cast of characters and detailed history of organized crime and corruption in the 1920s are provided before the night begins. The information, all of which is beautifully prepared on artistically aged paper, with old-fashioned typeface and artwork, provides a crash course in criminal history during the era of Prohibition. While reading the documents is interesting and does enhance the experience at Speakeasy Dollhouse, it is not necessary to memorize every fact before arriving.
Upon arriving at the Dollhouse, guests are ushered in by policemen dressed in period-specific uniforms and handed a slip of paper that contains a role or assignment for the night. They might have to warn one character about the secret scheming of another or try to stir up some trouble by hinting that a man’s wife is cheating on him with a fellow bootlegger. The paper encourages guests to ignore the advice their parents told them; tonight they should talk to strangers, explore behind closed doors, and look behind revolving bookcases.
Guests first enter a crowded bakery, where a circle of men are gambling. Here they can purchase cannolis and “special coffee,” sit and play cards with the gangsters, explore the adjacent barbershop where the woman cutting hair also sings beautifully of Ireland, or continue through an ominously dark alley up a flight of stairs into the speakeasy itself. Based on the dollhouse set previously constructed by von Buhler, the speakeasy is beautifully decorated, with dim red lighting, cocktails served in teacups and a live jazz band (The Howard Fishman Quartet) performing period music. It is a dream-like atmosphere which is easy to become lost in.
Costumed actors greet everyone warmly and remain in character throughout the evening, while watching the risque and skillful burlesque performances by
Lillet St Sunday, Kat Mon Dieu and Delysia LaChatte. Guests can explore the Dollhouse at their own pace, watching scenes unfold while talking and drinking with the cast, including Frank’s wife, the devoutly religious and very pregnant Mary (Dana McDonald). (She goes into labor later in the evening, giving birth to a girl who, we learn, turns out to be von Buhler’s mother.)
All is not fun and games, despite the affectionate speech Frank Spano gives to his guests; soon an angry confrontation takes place between Dutch Schultz and Frank, and the men and their two sons are ushered out into the lobby. To no one’s surprise, when Frank returns, he has been shot. The cheerful crowd of the speakeasy quickly shifts into chaos as the police begin investigating and a funeral and wake are held, complete with crying family members and friends giving heavily intoxicated speeches while Frank lies in an actual coffin in front of the fireplace.
Guests of the Dollhouse can quickly become part of the story, encouraged to stir up conflict or assist a character in helping to solve the mystery of who shot Frank. John the Barber (whose last name, we find out later in the evening, is Guerrieri, played by Silent James) appears to be a soft-spoken man oblivious to the fact that his wife is “making time” with Frank, but he is promptly arrested for the crime, despite his pleas for innocence.
While the story behind Speakeasy Dollhouse is indeed fascinating and the prepared scenes between the actors are talented and delightful to watch, the atmosphere of the show, enhanced by the beauty of of the set, is as much a star of the night as the cast or plot is. The detail of the period aesthetics at Speakeasy Dollhouse are extremely impressive, from the red velvet couches visitors can relax on, the deep teacups the cocktails are served in, and the dark secret apartment where Mary spends much of the evening resting and praying, until her older son Dominic (Rachel Boyadjis) breaks the news to her about Frank. (The scene is truly devastating to watch.) A record player and nickelodeon film viewer can be found in the dark, along with actual photographs of the Spano family on the mantle above the fireplace. One can refer to these photographs after chatting with von Buhler herself, who appears dressed in clothes from 1979, claiming her grandmother’s liquor gives her the ability to time travel. I found talking with von Buhler to be the most eerie experience of the night, highlighting the mysterious atmosphere of the speakeasy, especially when, after hearing a baby crying, she said quietly, “My mother’s just been born.”
But there is no shortage of the surreal or the mysterious at Speakeasy Dollhouse. A trip here- through both space and time – is truly unlike anything else.
Speakeasy Dollhouse is held the first Monday and Saturday of each month (except holiday weekends). Tickets can be purchased at BrownPaperTickets.