“You ever been here before?” the bar back said as I took the first sip of my Monte Carlo, a Benedictine-kissed take on an old-fashioned.
Dressed in a dirty white thermal shirt and unwashed yet dapper slacks, the bar back looked like a blast from the past. He carried a broom but he barely brushed it over the concrete floor. His eyes darted around manically as if searching for someone else. He leaned into my personal space as he spoke.
“I’ve been here since 8 a.m., and I always try to keep a smile on my face, you know. But you gotta watch out for the riff-raff here," he said before I could answer his first question. "Especially that one in the red dress. She came in today and you know what she told me? She told me to smile. Can you believe that?”
As I started to scan the small wooden bar buried in the back of an Arts District warehouse for a woman in a red dress, the man disappeared back into the crowd. The immersive, site-specific theater experience we'd all come to see wasn't supposed to start for another 10 minutes. But at the pop-up bar embedded inside the set, it had already begun.
The Day Shall Declare It, produced by L.A.'s Wilderness stage company, is a Depression-era theater installation that combines early Tennessee Williams one-acts with Studs Terkel's oral history Working. After selling out its American premiere at the same Arts District venue last year — it premiered in London in 2014 — The Day Shall Declare It was renewed for a second run in May and recently announced a monthlong extension (with extra late-night weekend shows) through July 31.
This year's production features a new, delicious addition: The Paradise, a pop-up speakeasy where you can pregame with the help of the mixology team known as Vagrant Bartenders (they also created the beverage program at Butcher's Daughter). Once the play starts, the bar also functions as a set piece where characters meet, drink bourbon and fall in love (because it usually happens in that order, right?).
Then, after each performance, the back door rolls up and the Paradise becomes a functioning bar again, this time open to the public. There's also a patio where audiences can feast on barbecue (available on pre-order for parties of 10 or more), nosh on house-made nuts and pickled bar snacks, listen to old-timey music and drink traditional and creative cocktails inspired by the show.
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Theater's not your thing? You don’t have to buy tickets to The Day Shall Declare It in order to enjoy a perfect gin martini or Ramos gin fizz at the Paradise, which is open to the public on show nights (after 10 p.m. on Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays, and less frequently when the schedule changes in July).
But playing witness to this collage of dance and theater might actually put you in the mood for drinks, if you weren't already. According to the play, there are only three ways to deal with the inner turmoil caused by America's no-sleep work ethic: sex, booze and physical escape. More often than not, the characters choose booze — it’s the more socially acceptable panacea to drudgery and sadness.
Even the show's final moments are made to be paired with cocktails. In lieu of a traditional curtain call, the cast ushers the audience back into the bar and tells them to drink up — because, after all, escapism never goes out of style.
The Paradise is open Sun. & Tue.-Thu., 10 p.m.-2 a.m.; and Fri.-Sat., 9:30-11 p.m.; 2051 E. Seventh St., Arts District; thisisthewilderness.com.