“We are really looking to create kind of intimate moments for the audience,” director Julianne Just says, summing up the ethos of the Speakeasy Society. She co-founded the immersive, audience-interactive theater company with fellow CalArts alumni Genevieve Gearhart and Matthew Bamberg-Johnson in 2012.
How intimate? The group’s first production, an adaptation of Macbeth called Suffering Fools — The Weird Sisters, was originally staged in three stalls of a women’s restroom for an audience of 15 to 20. Speakeasy then adapted María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends as Kitchen/Sugar/Bullet/Blank, a dinner party for 12 guests in an Atwater Village bungalow. Its production of August Strindberg’s two-character chamber piece The Stronger played in 20-minute cycles to audiences of one.
In those terms, the scale of Speakeasy’s current undertaking is epic. Ebenezer: An Immersive Christmas Carol is a 25-actor, interactive take on Charles Dickens’ perennial holiday classic that freshens — and darkens — it for contemporary audiences. The show is designed for Chloe’s, the warren of rooms that comprise a secret tavern hidden within Atwater Village’s sprawling Golden Road Brewing Company. This time out, Speakeasy has made room for audiences of up to 90 per show.
The inspiration for the show came out of one of Golden Road’s monthly Brewer’s Suppers, which the gastropub hosts in Chloe’s. “As we were sitting there eating, we were looking around the space and said, ‘Wow! This is really gorgeous — this is really special. I wonder if anybody ever does any performance here?’?” Bamberg-Johnson recalls in a recent joint interview with his collaborators at Golden Road.
The trio pitched Golden Road’s special-events manager on the spot. That resulted in a one-night test run of Ebenezer in December 2013, in which most of the show elements were put through their paces, including a preshow dinner with live music. The contemporized storylines were in tight, one-hour cycles so that the audience members had extra time to wander freely and interact directly with characters.
“It’s a large space, but it’s divided into a lot of little rooms,” Just observes, “so it was a really great palette for us in terms of creating a piece where there’s an element of discovery to it. It’s for you to explore the space, and in doing so you explore the story as well.”
The evening was an unqualified success from the perspective of both the audience and Golden Road, though Bamberg-Johnson admits that the 150 people who ended up plunking down for the play (there’s a separate admission for the preshow dinner) at times overwhelmed the piece.
“Just in term of volume and traffic patterns,” he recalls, “it was a little hard for the performers to shout over the natural din of the space and also for people to get through to see everything that they wanted to see.”
This year they’ve limited admission but expanded the performances from one to four. They’ve also given the production an even more wryly mordant sense of psychological undertow — for instance, they’ve recast the diminutive Tiny Tim with 6-foot-4-inch tap dancer James Cowan.
Company composer and sound designer Chris Porter explains that, instead of Tiny Tim being a sickly child, he’s actually suicidal and manic-depressive. “Using that, we kind of reshaped all of the other characters around it so that everybody has much darker trajectories,” Porter says. “We have characters struggling with alcoholism, we have some characters struggling with marriage issues, dementia, just complete loss of trajectory in life, so that all the characters are struggling to find a happy ending, and obviously if Scrooge doesn’t have the change of heart, then they all end up in a very dark place.”
For those who might be dubious of Dickensian platitudes about the true meaning of Christmas, the Speakeasy version of A Christmas Carol punctures some of that triteness by allowing Scrooge to choose badly at times.
Just describes the show’s structure as a kind of “Groundhog Day story”: Throughout the evening, Scrooge has multiple chances to make the right choice. When he doesn’t, the story starts all over again.
The audience is just like Scrooge: Each time the story runs, they have to make decisions about who to follow. “You could spend the whole evening just with the Cratchits or just with the Ghost of Christmas Present,” Just says. “We hope you’ll follow different people and go on different paths, but it’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure story.”
Chloe’s at Golden Road Brewery, 5410 W. San Fernando Road, Atwater Village; Dec. 3, 4, 8 & 9. speakeasysociety.com.
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