Recap: The “Speakeasy Dollhouse” on the Lower East Side
“Be nosy and talk to strangers. Wander. If you sit in one place, you will miss everything.”
These were the cryptic instructions handed to us, when we arrived at the Speakeasy Dollhouse, an “immersive theater” performance at a secret location on the Lower East Side.
The theater piece is the brainchild of Cynthia von Buhler, a visual artist, illustrator, children’s book author, performer, and uber-creative gal about town. The performance tells the true story of von Buhler’s grandfather Frank Spano, who owned two speakeasies in the Bronx during prohibition. One was a bar and one was a bakery, which are both recreated in the theater piece.
Spano was shot on a street in Manhattan, and his murderer was never caught. Von Buhler’s grandmother Mary was pregnant at the time, and the news of her husband’s death caused such a severe reaction that she went into labor, causing von Buhler’s mother to be born at the same time that her grandfather was murdered. (You got all that?) Mary Spano never talked about her husband’s business, or gave any insight into the murder.
Trying to piece together the history and events of the murder, von Buhler first created a graphic novel using photographs of dioramas that she built, depicting various scenes of the crime. She then got inspired by the concept of immersive theater (similar to the idea behind the popular NYC performance “Speak No More,” in which the audience wanders through various rooms amidst the actors, often becoming part of the story). This led her to create the companion theater piece to the graphic novel.
After ordering tickets online, we were sent an email a few days later with a password for the night. Other emails followed, which contained images of authentic documents, paperwork and newspaper articles having to do with the murder. Once you arrive and give the password to the “cops” outside, you are led down a set of stairs into an alleyway, which brings you to Spano’s bakery. You can buy cannoli (a specialty of Mary Spano’s) at the “bakery,” get a cup of “special coffee,” and also pick up copies of the graphic novel and evidence book.
While waiting at the bakery, the actors begin to reveal themselves to the guests. Scenes start to unfold, many of which involve the actors speaking directly to members of the audience. There was some great ad libbing when we were there. Most guests were happy to play along (New Yorkers don’t exactly need arm-twisting to talk to strangers), while those who were more introverted sat on the sidelines and enjoyed watching the show. Some guests also joined in on the “poker game” taking place in the bakery.
Guests moved on from the bakery, walking through an alleyway and getting the “approval” of Frank and Mary Spano before being allowed in to the speakeasy nightclub, located close by. As you enter the club, you are immediately transported to the prohibition era by the decor, costumes and music, and you begin to piece together who’s who. Part of the fun is trying to figure out who is an actor and who is a guest, since the guests are also encouraged to dress in period attire. (We needed little encouragement on that front. This writer happily left a trail of sequins and feathers throughout the streets of the Lower East Side on the way home).
The live music provided by the house band, The Howard Fishman Quartet, can only be described as absolutely fantastic. Each month there are different themes along with surprise guest performers. On this night, we were happily surprised by Amanda Palmer (formerly of the art-punk cabaret band The Dresden Dolls, now a solo artist and also one half of the duo Evelyn Evelyn) and her husband Neil Gaiman (author of The Sandman graphic novel series, along with other novels). Since the theme of the night was “Sex,” they decided to canoodle a bit on a stair railing. Palmer played ukulele, while the duo, well, duetted a fabulous rendition of “Making Whoopee.”
There are many surprises which we don’t want to spoil here, so to find out more, you’ll just have to attend. The shows generally take place during the first weekend of each month, however the next lineup is in August. Tickets for the Speakeasy Dollhouse can be found here.
-Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg