Did John Wilkes Booth kill President Abraham Lincoln as a result of the Civil War, or were his actions the product of a destructive sibling rivalry with his brother Edwin? Stageworks Media explores this question and more in its immersive theater piece “Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Brothers Booth.”
The play takes place in Edwin Booth’s mansion, the home of the Players Club, a society for artists. Audience members are given free reign to walk in the footsteps of Edwin Booth and explore simultaneous performances throughout the Greek Revival mansion. From a puppet show, to ballroom dancing, to multiple séances, and even a burlesque number, “The Brothers Booth” is truly a variety show. Set in 1919 during Prohibition, the play transports its audience back in time to an age of jazz, corruption, and family secrets.
As the show is immersive theater, the actors spread throughout the building welcome interaction with the audience. But, since audience members are encouraged to dress up in their best “flapper and dapper” wear, it is sometimes impossible to distinguish between actor and audience member. Striking up a conversation with an actor can lead to a hint about where to head next to see something worthwhile.
Most of the actors play characters from 1919 that are members or employees of the Players Club. Particularly engaging characters are the bumbling librarian, played by Chris Fink, and the smooth-talking club secretary, played by Allen Wilcox. Newsboys gleefully and transparently act as ushers and stage crew as they run around moving props and yelling about exciting events happening in different locations. The most enigmatic actors, Eric Gravez and Ryan Wesen, portray Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, respectively. As both Booth brothers were Shakespearean actors, famous Bard speeches and scenes are woven into the dialogue. A pivotal moment occurs in the ballroom during a scene from “Julius Caesar.” Edwin plays Brutus while John Wilkes plays Marc Antony. During these brief moments, it is Edwin who has assassinated a beloved leader due to his “ambition” and John Wilkes who tenderly, but forcefully, denounces him. As only history would tell, these roles would ultimately be reversed.
Due to the unrestricted nature of the play, each audience member has his or her own unique experience. However, this freedom can infringe upon other attendees. On opening night, audience members heckled actors mid-monologue, refused to move out of the way to let others see, and lit electronic cigarettes in the middle of a crowded ballroom. This disrespectful behavior degraded the experience for everyone. The biggest problem by far, though, was overcrowding.
In a novel, but occasionally frustrating, way, “The Brothers Booth” attempts to investigate the rivalry between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth and the damage it caused. While that question will never be definitively answered, the play settles on a line from “Julius Caesar” to draw a conclusion. For Edwin and John Wilkes, the Brothers Booth, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrèd with their bones.”
Four more performances are scheduled on April 5, May 3, June 7, and July 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $75.