“I’m not sure if I’m hallucinating, time traveling or seeing ghosts, but every night in the speakeasy when the music starts playing, the same thing happens – I witness my grandfather’s murder.”
Based on the real-life murder of her grandfather Frank Spano in 1935, Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning is a result of Cynthia von Buhler’s obsessive research into – and theatrical reconstruction of – the events leading up to the mysterious murder.
8:00pm, Thursday, May 18th – The Weylin
Alyssa and I, dressed thematically in a gilded flapper dress and a black pinstriped suit, respectively, arrived to a growing line outside the Weylin—a former bank vault turned banquet hall. Nearly all of the other guests had dressed up in Roaring Twenties or otherwise formal attire, aiding in the atmospheric immersion of the event. Upon entrance, we were escorted to our reserved table in the middle of the speakeasy club.
The Bloody Beginning can be perhaps summed up as choose-your-own-adventure immersive theater. There is the main underlying storyline surrounding Frank Spano’s murder that unfolds around the central characters. This dramatic narrative can be fully experienced by following one of the main characters as they traverse the expansive settings, which ranges from bakery to the main speakeasy club to the coroner’s office to the many bedrooms and chambers inside the Weylin.
Interestingly, there are also optional side-plots in the narrative of The Bloody Beginning that run parallel to the main storyline. Upon arrival, guests are given a role to play or a task to complete. My alter-ego for the night was to be Cecil B. DeMille, famous director and producer of silent films, and my role was to seek out and find a certain promising young actress to audition. Through the pursuit of this role, we ended up meeting other guests who had a wide variety of roles. Some of the other guests’ roles were crucial to the development of the main storyline. Others were whimsical sidebars to the main action.
These non-linear side plots were a unique feature of the night. By making friends with other guests, we were able to collectively share in their distinct side plots and experience an array of special interactions with the costumed actors and actresses. Indeed, we did manage to locate the promising young actress to audition, although my interaction with her ended up to be – to both my delight and chagrin – not what I expected at all. The resulting bespoke nature of our experience added to the richness of the story, as it encouraged guests’ participation in the play itself.
It is important to note that participation in the side plots did not detract from experiencing the high-stakes investigation of Frank Spano’s murder. Many of the critical elements of the investigation happen in the second and third acts of the play; these relevant plot points were often heralded by commotion or direction by the many actors, so it was easy to follow and rejoin the main storyline.
The flexible structure of the narrative allowed us to have ample time to explore, mingle with other guests at the bar, and watch the live band and burlesque performances from the comfort of our seated table. Interestingly enough, the non-linear narrative structure gave us a sense that we were able to travel through time by picking and choosing which parts of the storyline we wanted to participate in at whichever time we wanted.
On one memorable occasion during the night, we found ourselves speaking with an actress playing an adolescent Cynthia von Buhler in a room housing the eponymous dollhouse, only to run into the real-life Ms. Von Buhler herself, who was eerily clairvoyant and self-aware, warning us of ominous events before they happened.
This theme of time travel is perhaps critical to understanding The Bloody Beginning. It can be seen in the 20th century speakeasy setting, the costumes and mannerisms of the actors. It can be perceived and experienced in the piecewise, non-linear storyline. But perhaps it can most clearly be felt as a metaphor for Ms. Von Buhler’s feverish attempt to solve the mystery of her own grandfather’s murder – her own attempt to travel back in time to find out the truth about her own family. And so, as guests participating in this real-life story, we too have become time travelers.
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku once said that time is actually like a river. It speeds up, meanders, and slows down. It can have whirlpools and forks. And if the river of time can be bent into a pretzel, spawn whirlpools and fork into two rivers, then time travel cannot be ruled out.
Alas, a time machine does not exist yet. And while we wait for the physicists to build it, perhaps in the present, we can all experience time travel more abstractly – through immersive art à la The Bloody Beginning.
We were guests of The Bloody Beginning, however, the opinions are our own. To get tickets to the next show visit thebloodybeginning.com.
To learn more about the making of The Bloody Beginning watch the video below with director and creator Cynthia von Buhler.