Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Brothers Booth

by Terence Diamond
Friday Apr 11, 2014
The burlesque girls of Speakeasy Dollhouse
The burlesque girls of Speakeasy Dollhouse  (Source:http://brothersbooth.blogspot.com/)

Aficionados of immersive theatre will appreciate "Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Brothers Booth." Described by its creator, Cynthia von Buhler as "investigative historical fiction," it is directed by Wes Grantom and features Eric Gravez as Edwin Booth, Ryan Wesen as John Wilkes Booth, Russell Farhang as John Drew, and Tansy as the Hostess.

Von Buhler claims to have been intrigued by the story of the Lincoln assassination and the misfortune of the renowned acting family, the Booths, to have raised the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Her research led her to believe that sibling rivalry between John Wilkes and Edwin Booth -- not John Wilkes' allegiance to the confederacy -- caused him to murder Lincoln. "The Brothers Booth" is pleasing if you're into conspiracy theories and their historical reenactments.

The occasion of "Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Brothers Booth" is November 13, 1919. Admitted via a secret entrance into the Player's Club's ballroom, the audience is ushered into a scene in progress: the public unveiling of a life-sized bronze statue of Edwin, a legendary Shakespearean actor and the club's founder.

Newsboys announce the unveiling along with other breaking news: A majority in the Congress has just upheld the Volstead Act. Hooch brewed in bathtubs or smuggled from Canada and the speakeasies that peddled it, gave rise to a culture that also flouted other Puritan norms. Illegal bars were tucked away in the basements of townhouses and legit establishments.

Immorality (code for homosexuality) was perceived to flourish in these underground establishments and the fashionable set flocked to them. Vice squads raided and scooped up the demimonde and the socially prominent alike.

One of the threads of the story that Von Buhler and Co. want to tell is the postmortem legend of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin. Variations of theories lifted from web pages, along with a fictionalized sibling rivalry, seem to be the raw material of "The Brothers Booth." It's an ingenious idea, but its execution as dispersed throughout the four floors and numerous rooms of the 19th Century Georgian mansion is less than effective.

One enters the playing space from the back door. A newspaper, "The New York Herald," is thrust into one's hand along with a small business card that has the role one is supposed to play during the night. Then one enters the main ballroom where a party is in full swing.

There are gentlemen in evening dress escorting flappers while "taxi dancers" circumambulate the crowd. The party is interrupted by the entrance of Edwina Booth, Edwin's daughter, who represents the family and receives the unveiling on behalf of her father.

"The Brothers Booth" is pleasing if you’re into conspiracy theories and their historical reenactments.

Edwin Booth came from a well-regarded acting family. His father, Junius Brutus Booth was a respected Shakespearean in his day. The family would have enjoyed its legacy as a foremost acting family, rival to none, save for the heinous deed by John Wilkes. The infamy plagued Edwin throughout his adult life.

Crowd control is an essential technique of immersive theatre. To its credit, the creators don't spoon-feed the narrative arc. As one wanders through the mansion, the actors in period costume casually invite straggling audience members to the sectors of the house where a dramatic scene is about to take place. One must rely on inspiration and natural curiosity to follow the thread.

There were scenes in the Tap Room, the Séance Room, the Bedroom, the Hallway, the Parlor and the Lower Basement. In each of these a specific bit of exposition is given. But one could miss all this action. That's precisely the case with this reviewer with a few exceptions.

One was the puppet show in the library presented as a Darwinist documentary, with the unlikely name, "The Obligate Siblicide on the Galapagos Islands." Narrated by Guy Nichols, it attempts a mock-seriousness belied by the alluring outfits of the female puppeteers. One voluptuous lady's gold satin dress clung to her breasts perfectly, providing a wondrous view of cleavage.

The manipulation of the puppets, and the examination of -- believe it or not -- the Booby bird of the Galapagos, were completely upstaged by the view. Whether a deliberate double entendre in the repetition of the word, "booby" it is a sly visual joke and makes one appreciate the pains taken in an earlier age to allow gentlemen to objectify women under the pretense of scientific inquiry.

Further opportunities to ogle women may be worth the admission price. Hostess Tansy, the flame haired Francine The Lucid Dream, and Deylsia La Chatte, were elegant and sexy. The live band, Grandpa Musselman and the Syncopaters, livened up the burlesque show. During Tansy's routine, the band's trumpeter worked himself into a frenzy following her every move, raunchily birddogging each shimmy and shake.

Visual artist Cynthia Von Buhler, who initially works with dolls to realize her vision, is the brainchild of "The Brothers Booth." Michael Barra of Stageworks Media is responsible for the steeply priced tickets at $75 and $125. In partnership the duo have produced an experience that by design or accident is fragmented and at times incoherent. Given the likelihood of missing the drama, enjoy the party.

The cast also features Jonas Barranca, Victor Barranca, Chrissy Basham, Daniel Burns, Laura Epperson, Russell Farhang, Chris Fink, Katelan Foisy, E. James Ford, Skyler Max Gallun, Ashley Grombol, Jenny Harder, Silent James, Lord Kat, Alexandra Kopko, Delysia LaChatte, Justin Moore, Travis Moore, Dan Olson, Erin Orr, William Otterson, Natalie Rich, Hannah Rose, Samantha Rosenrater, Sarah Vogt and Allen Wilcox.

"Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Brothers Booth" runs through July 12 at The Players Club, 16 Gramercy Park South. For information or tickets, visit www.brothersbooth.blogspot.com or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/506776.

Terence Diamond's first job out of high school was a union meat slicer for a Danish ham factory in suburban New Jersey. Despite two adventures in academia, Terence grew up to be a playwright, journalist, and short story writer. Terence is a prolific author of almost exclusively queer themed full-length and short play. Terence's work is listed in 'Gay and Lesbian American Plays: An Annotated Bibliography.' Terence is formerly an assistant professor of English at Long Island University and a member of the Dramatists Guild. Currently Terence teaches grant writing to artists at 3rd Ward Education in Brooklyn, contributes to PrettyQueer.com and Curve Magazine. He also writes grants for and advises small theatre companies, including a queer theatre startup.


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