That’s how our night began, 15 minutes prior to show time as we navigated through the quaint, cobblestone streets of Cambridge last night in search of the venue that was hosting the Speakeasy Circus, an interactive theater experience put on by the Boston Circus Guild.
A man and two women approached us, inquiring because they’d noticed my feathered headband. They joined us in the search and we soon crossed another couple, also looking for the Oberon. We all trekked in the direction our phone GPSes were taking us, strangers who came to town with the same purpose.
It turned out we were only half a block away and, in fact, had driven right by it when searching for parking. It was truly the perfect beginning to the night – such illicit, booze-fueled cubs were supposed to be hard to find back in the day, after all.
The show was maddeningly fun, I must say – so much so that under the cut you’ll find a fully detailed account of it because this is a night I never ever want to forget. I promise, it’s worth the time.
Read away, fools. 😀
As we stood in line to get in we saw passed two signs: “Be quiet, you louts!” and “Welcome to Cambridge Library”. The Oberon itself is tiny, with a bar running along the back of the room, opposite the stage. A balcony sits atop it, though there was no sitting there on this night. On the far side of the open floor was a raised area filled with tables, while the same space on the near side housed only chairs. The floor, where our seats were, was packed with tiny tables and chairs. Ours was the second one in from the stage, seats right on the center aisle. We had the perfect view.
I found this when searching the #SpeakeasyCircus tag on Facebook; it’s one of the actor’s. Our table was on the one you see directly above the “107” table marker.
As waitresses came around to take drink orders the band, Dutch Brewster and the Oberon Rhythm Kings (actually The Continental Grifters led by Chuck Lechien Jr.), began playing. Actors dressed for the era slowly filtered in, interacting with the crowd and dancing in the center aisle, getting everyone riled up. A girl in blue, a girl in pink and a man dressed as an actual waiter (the real staff wore just black) were standouts, however, so I had my eye on them – rightfully so, I’d find out later.
Dutch welcomed everyone to the Oberon Social Club, which was fronting as a book club meeting. The book of the month ended up being “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which is the wrap that covered the show program the girls handed out to you as you walked in. I was confused by it at first, thinking it was an advert for a future show, but it served a purpose. It was cover if, as Dutch said, “J. Edgar Hoover comes knockin’.”
Left: Stealthy “book” for the Oberon club members. Right: Actual program for the show.
Décor was minimized to only a few posters around the room that highlighted the varying circus acts that were to come. In the back by the bar was a silver box that stood alone – to obviously be used in time.
If you’re like me, you like to be able to envision a person someone is talking about. Well, here’s a photo that came off of the Circus’s Facebook with some of the cast members. Keep these faces in mind as you read through.
Top: (from suspender guy) Henchman 1, Lillian, Henchmen 2, 3, 4, Little L. Second: Gina, Margot, Ben Vereen (noted actor, not in the show), Pearlie, Edwin, Marv, Gladys. Lone guy in the front is Ryan.
The band played for a half hour while everyone settled in, then the club owner Edwin Ayer (played by Dan Prior) came on stage to welcome everyone to the show. As he was speaking about the club’s star, Margot Price (Ellen Waylonis May), her mousey little assistant Lillian Brooks (Julia Jerome) popped out from a stairwell in the back of the theater to say that “Ms. Price” needed a drink before hitting the stage. This girl was good. She played the perfect need-to-please assistant who was in constant fear of getting fired.
While the crowd was to wait for Margot to be ready, we were treated to a bevy of other awesome performances. It turns out the silver box was a platform for all the aerial acts, the first of which was done on a solitary trapeze bar by “The High Flying Wonder” Gina DeFreitas. She hung by solely her feet at one point. It looked so painful and graceful all at once.
Then “Debonair Extraordinaire” Benjamin Reynolds graced the stage with what’s called contact juggling; he had two clear glass balls that he rolled about his upper body and made move from limb to limb with a fluidity like water. It was pretty much unreal.
Teeny tiny Little L came out as “The Whirling Dervish,” a bite-size girl who spun hoola hoops (and at times a mass amount of them) in a totally mesmerizing way. She botched one trick, but it didn’t even matter; the audience was totally on her side and cheering the whole thing on.
Duo Rocco Lapaire and Ryan Freeze – two not only buff but gorgeous men – came out to do acrobatics. The sheer strength of the two of them was hard to wrap my head around. Lapaire did a one-armed handstand – on Freeze’s head. ON HIS HEAD.
It also has to be noted that the music played during some of the acts was electroswing, which I have recently become very taken with. I didn’t even know it was a genre. Spotify it – you will not be disappointed. When Lionel Hampton’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” played during the acrobat act I pretty much died.
During this act a red-haired, loud-mouthed gangster woman burst in. It was Pearlie Dentemacchia (Darcie Champagne), a crime boss, with her four henchmen (A Different Spin, a circus group that was…well….dizzying). This woman was one of my two favorites (Lillian being the other) – she was a great actress. She reminded me of Red from “Orange is the New Black,” though Boy caught more of a Madonna in “A League of Their Own” vibe from her. Honestly, she was the perfect blend of both.
Turns out the club was hers before she was thrown in jail and she wasn’t too happy that Edwin turned it into something that was not a raunchy joint. Edwin promised her she’d enjoy what it had become, though, so he invited her to sit on the side of the stage with her lackeys. She enjoyed the acrobatic men just as much as I did.
At some point, too, the assistant locked eyes with one of the henchmen and everything went into “slow motion” – which was actually some hilarious over-exaggerated movements on the actors’ parts.
Cue musical break, people were dancing, the band played “I Wanna Be Like You” from “Jungle Book” and I died a little – again. (It’s a common song for swing bands to cover.) And the show didn’t stop at all, because Assistant Lillian was walking through the tables, handing people autographed photographs of Margot. This girl, she was a riot.
We came back and finally Margot was ready to perform. She did a stunning act on a rope hanging from the ceiling, making me gasp several times with quick drops to the ground. She was a diva, for sure, and did’t get along with Pearlie whatsoever. The mob boss was momentarily distracted by a re-appearance from Lapaire, who did a Chinese Pole act. Again, such strength. And he really got into it, taking his shirt off and gyrating around.
Well, at this point Pearlie had enough and was going to take her damn club back – though, in true shitty leader-of-the-group form, not by herself. This is where her cronies came in. Turns out they were JUGGLERS. Insanely good, dizzy spell-inducing jugglers. At one point I didn’t even understand what was happening. There were pins flying in all directions and people walking in and out of their path, catching them and handing them to somebody else. It would take forever to suss it all out.
Then Pearlie called out the aforementioned pink and blue flappers to get the party started. The two girls, who had been mercilessly teasing the head waiter all night, started dancing and drug him up front – then ripped his shirt off. Then his pants. He was left in a waiter apron, heart print boxers and just his shirt collar.
The girls drug him onstage, and then THEY took off their dresses! Turns out the trio – characters Marv Hackman, Gladys Stickleback and Edith Topplebottom – were actually burlesque performers Danny Drake, Cheeky DeVine and Brandy Wine. Therefore, the ladies eventually ended up in undies and pasties, as per typical burlesque fashion.
It’s at that point that Pearlie and Margot really get into it and Pearlie has Margot kidnapped by the four henchmen, who shoved her in a cello case and hid her off-stage. Cue another music break, and this time Assistant Jillian was scouring the audience and under the tables at which we sat, asking if “anyone has seen “Mr. Ayer or Miss Price?”
At this point, some audience members got up and started dancing with the cast strewn about the crowd. It was then that a member of the band sang “When You’re Good to Mama” from Chicago – cue the third fangirl death of mine.
The last act began with Pearlie singing a song about wanting to be evil. Assistant Lillian was so upset both of her bosses went missing, and the henchman who liked her tried to cheer her up by doing a comedic/acrobatic dance with a fellow croney that was both funny and impressive all at once.
Finally, Edwin showed up with a black eye and told Assistant Lillian that the gig was up – he’s relinquishing the club to Pearlie. Lillian, however, was NOT having it and argued with him, saying he always told her the circus would never die. The whole time he’s trying to make his way out the door and she’s following him – until she ends up right at the silver box, where she rips her dress off, mounts the tiny stage and ends up doing an aerial hoop act. To add to this – SHE WAS SINGING THE WHOLE TIME. It was astonishing. She was fierce. How does a human being even do that?
Well, then we found out that Pearlie actually knew Gladys from her time in the slammer and it came out that Pearlie was let out so early because she was SNITCHING. Which did not sit well with her henchmen.
Eventually Margot found her way out of the cello case and was none too pleased. A chase gives way between the henchmen, Margot, Lillian and Pearlie and insanity ensues until Edwin puts a stop to it – he’s now confident he’s going to take the club back, enlist the henchman as an act and book Lillian as a star alongside Margot. Pearlie is also going to get hers.
It ended with the henchmen tying Pearlie up and juggling all about her as she squirmed in discomfort. While that was happening Lillian was swinging in her hoop and her lackey lover joined her. There were performers in the balcony with lighted hoops and sticks on strings making a scene, one of the strong men was doing handstands on the bar of the mezzanine – there was just SO MUCH going on all at once, it was hard to know where to even look!
And the song ended, and the Oberon lived happily ever after as a place to throw the middle finger to prohibition.
And there sat a 28-year-old girl whose face hurt from smiling for two hours straight, who had many times grabbed at her boyfriend’s hand in awe and anticipation for some of the more devilish tricks to go down. A girl who has always loved the era and never quite knew where to place and express that love, only to realize found the perfect place for once.
The Speakeasy Circus seemingly comes but once a year to Massachusetts. For god’s sake, if you find yourself in New England – or, hell, figure out when the show is happening and THEN magically find yourself in New England – do yourself a favor and go. I’ve seen quite a bit of theatre, and this is by far the tops.