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BWW Review: Blurring Boundaries in Search of Truth, Cynthia von Buhler Brings 'Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning' to the Weylin

BWW Review: Blurring Boundaries in Search of Truth, Cynthia von Buhler Brings 'Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning' to the Weylin
Scott Southard in Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning. Photo by Margee Challa.

Cynthia Von Buhler's Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning grew out of the artist's lifelong fascination with the mysterious death of her Italian immigrant grandfather, Frank Spano, in 1935. Originally conceived as a one-night event, Speakeasy Dollhouse took on a life of its own and since 2011 has become one of New York's most innovative theatrical experiences, spawning other immersive plays including Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic and The Brothers Booth.

Held in historic venues that transport Audience members back in time (like Edwin Booth's former Gramercy Park mansion and the Liberty Theater in Times Square), von Buhler's productions are sensuous and visual triumphs which reflect her background in the fine arts. The Bloody Beginning made its Brooklyn debut on July 22 at the Weylin, formerly the stunning Williamsburgh Savings Bank, across the street from the legendary Peter Luger steakhouse.

"The speakeasy is our dollhouse and the audience are our dolls," writes von Buhler of her work. The dissolution of boundaries between actor and audience is of course the hallmark of this form of theater, but other sorts of boundaries unravel before the play even begins. Participants receive emails with police reports, news clippings, autopsy notes, and other information relevant to the investigation and trial in the wake of Spano's shooting. The play may be "the beginning" in the sense that it is the first in the Speakeasy Dollhouse series, but the audience's engagement with Frank Spano's family, friends, enemies, and colleagues precedes the curtain's figurative drawing and is thereby extended.

Too, Spano's lollipop-licking teen granddaughter Cyn Carrozza in punk clothing (PJ Mead) travels from 1979 to the early 1930s, eliciting the suspicion among waitresses and guests that she's crazy. The time travel component injects something of the fantastic into what is otherwise a scrupulously authentic and real experience. Mead, with a more than passing resemblance to Katy Perry, is by turns earnest and frenetic as she cozies up to guests, pitching her version of events.

Critics have often described von Buhler's plays as "dreamlike" but failed to account for the sources of this quality. It is, in my view, the insistent challenge of temporal, generic, and theatrical boundaries which thrusts Audience members into a liminal realm. And what is a dream, if not a state that mirrors reality even as it undercuts normal states of consciousness. The Bloody Beginning exists in the state between the real and the imagined, just as it demands that we question the very status of facts--the basis of truth, after all--in the course of the investigation and trial.

BWW Review: Blurring Boundaries in Search of Truth, Cynthia von Buhler Brings 'Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning' to the Weylin
Rachel and Jordana Rollerhoops. Photo by Arin Sang-urai.

As the audience stands in line, police officers, musicians, and a few mobsters donning fedoras mill about. We each receive a slip of paper about our roles in the performance from what looks like a mad gypsy. I am a talented seamstress who hates my sweatshop job. I have read an article in Life magazine about Dr. Thomas Gonzales, the Chief Medical Examiner in New York, and find him handsome. I am instructed to seek him out, compliment him on the article, ask to stitch corpses for him, and to ignore all parental directives about talking to strangers as I embark on my mission.

Armed with my new identity, I am greeted by a flirtatious blonde bombshell (Haleigh Ciel). In her green silk and lace dress hanging provocatively over her dancer's body, she evokes Laura Dern in the 1991 Robert Duvall film, Rambling Rose. Wearing a bright pink dress on an oppressively hot summer night not conducive to black velvet, I apologize for my attire, better suited to a country club summer party than a speakeasy. Not missing a beat, she says with an air of mischief, "Tomato's always in season, doll!" and reminds me to try some cannoli made by Frank's ceaselessly pregnant and either devout or insane wife, Mary. They are, in fact, the best cannoli I have eaten. Mercifully, the Weylin is as cold as a meat locker, fit to store dead bodies. Whether this is deliberate or merely considerate, I cannot say.

The atmosphere near the bar, where Prohibition cocktails like the Bee's Knees flow freely, is festive. The Syncopators (Howard Fishman and his band) set the mood nicely, though the sound system needs work. Frank, played with convincing power by Russell Farhang, welcomes guests and introduces wife Mary (Dana MacDonald), who lends humor to the evening throughout. A loose cannon, she is by turns hysterical and pious (prone to bursting into prayer). Rachel Boyadjis evokes compassion as Dom, their deeply anxious and insecure 14-year-old son who knows he can never fill his father's shoes. Delysia La Chatte charms with her burlesque performance and opera singer Katie Kat delivers a moving, technically sound lament near the end of the show. Her formal training serves her well in a room with acoustic challenges.

When I reach the morgue via the elevator, manned by Luka Fric, I am unsuccessful with Dr. Gonzalez (Joel Jesice). Nurse Bessie Stritch (Lisa Lynn Dempsey) is protective and eager to shoo away any competition. Upstairs, I witness a fight between Frank and his beautiful mistress in red, Lucrezia Guerrieri (Celeste Hudson).

BWW Review: Blurring Boundaries in Search of Truth, Cynthia von Buhler Brings 'Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning' to the Weylin
Russell Farhang, Rachel Boyadjis & Ali Luminiscent. Photo by Challa.

Later, I speak to a grieving, distraught Lucrezia about her future since John, her barber husband, killed Frank. The hostess in green is equally worried what she will do in Frank's absence; it's unclear if Frank played more than a fatherly role in her life. In the commotion preceding the trial, Jimmy Hines, a corrupt Irishman nicely played by Charley Layton and in cahoots with the ruthless but oddly polished and bookish mobster Dutch Schultz (Travis Moore), slips me a C-note and points to a heavyset man in a suit.

I do not know who the man is, but he turns out to be Detective Crane (Justin Moore). Jimmy wants me to seduce Detective Crane into giving me a document, but as I run my hands over his suit jacket and feel a piece of paper, he insists that it's only cash. I run my hands down a little further, but he's not giving it up. I apologize to Jimmy.

The evening concludes on a satisfying note, even if the questions raised throughout the evening never get answered. Immersive theater is an active rather than passive art form. At some moments, the audience appears confused, but generally the actors keep the audience moving to the appropriate scenes upstairs. Participants who do not read the materials beforehand will find the experience disjointed (not, of course, the fault of von Buhler, associate director/company manager PJ Mead, and stage manager Chris Ignacio). But in Speakeasy Dollhouse, von Buhler has transformed a personal event in her family's history into unusual and imaginative theater. It is an ambitious and worthwhile project, whose minor flaws in no way detract from the overall effect.

Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning continues at the Weylin on August 12 and 13.


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