Back in 1935, Cynthia von Buhler's grandfather, Frank Spano, was murdered. Possibly a gangland hit. Possibly tied to Dutch Schultz. This is the kind of bloody family past that is so potent, so laden with untold secrets, it's kind of inevitable that the bodies cannot, will not remain buried. Miss von Buhler wants to figure out what happened. This true life jazz age murder in her family has inspired her to create a multi-platform exploration of the crime, performed by dolls, actors (including the completely ubiquitous friend of The Cabinet Jennifer Harder), chorus girls and the audience.
Frances Glessner Lee's Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, she has meticulously designed and created tiny little sets inhabited by dolls which enact her grandfather's death, the events surrounding the murder and scenes from her own life.
A couple of Mondays ago, me and a select group of my lady actor/artist friends attended the human size portion of Miss von Buhler's project which crops up every few months in The Back Room - what used to be Lansky's Lounge, and way before that, an actual speakeasy in back of Ratner's. It's best described as a combination of interactive theater, art installation, cabaret and fancy dress party. Guided by cops (dirty, of course) into a bakery area in which cannolis are proffered, one is then led one party at a time into the speakeasy proper. Heavy on atmosphere and fun, and light on narrative, the attention to detail impresses. Howard Fishman's combo perform period perfect jazz, cocktails are served in coffee cups, everyone looks fabulous. The one criticism I had would be that I would have liked a bit more direction in terms of where one should be looking. But, that's just a quibble, it hardly matters.
We drank many cognac based cocktails out of our coffee cups, saw the lovely Veronica Varlow perform, at one point, I heard someone playing a ukulele, turned around and Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer were right above me, singing Makin' Whoopie.
It's a beautiful space and we had a lovely time. No murders were solved when I was there. It's not some cheesy, interactive whodunnit murder game. It's an excavation of the past, an attempt to find at least the feeling of the truth by recreating it whole, and to simultaneously host a lovely party.
The past is a mysterious country, and as I've said so many times here before, all of my past is tied to this glorious city. Most of my New York Irish ancestors were lawyers and judges and newspaper men and real estate developers. Most of my family's contributions to this city have been definitively erased by time and rebuilding and short memories. At the time Miss von Buhler's grandfather was shot down, one of my illustrious great uncles was working at the Manhattan District Attorney's office, prosecuting high profile jazz age murders. I have to wonder if any part of this story made its way across his desk. This city is sometimes a surprisingly small place, so it's possible. The ghosts of the past never stop walking.
The next performances of Speakeasy Dollhouse are August 4th and 6th. Tickets are available here.
Photo credit: © Cynthia von Buhler, 2012
All illustrations © this blog.