I’m returning to the Speakeasy Society’s Kansas for the fifth time in the past year and a half, and things are so different than the first. The first time, at The Key I met a man called Lyman who told me that beyond the slit in the tent behind him, I’d no longer be in Los Angeles—I’d be toeing the edge of the universe between Oz and Dustbowl Era Kansas, and that within, I’d be making a choice. Four chapters later, I’m now toeing the edges of a grassy courtyard in the center of a Kansas church, waiting for Phoebe Daring and The Scarecrow King to be wed. I’ve made so many choices since I first walked past Lyman and through the curtains dividing my world from this one but here, at The Vow, it’s as if everything is finally coming to a head. If I’ve made the right decisions so far, I can’t be sure, but I still hear Lyman’s last piece of advice from that first night (or was is a warning?) “There are no wrong choices, only consequences,” he said. Tonight, I think it’s time to meet them.
The main choice myself and the other wedding guests have made tonight is our choice of color to wear. Our colors represent the five distinct paths available: Blue for Revolt, Red for Patchwork Resistance, Green for Scarecrow’s Milita, Black for Ozma, and White for newcomers to Kansas to catch up on the story so far. Entering this space is to join a world of color, not unlike The Wizard of Oz film—a black and white world suddenly bursting to life. To wit, this is a Kansas show of a different color—within the five paths are opportunities to splinter off even further to intimate interactions with well-loved characters, secret plots, betrayals, and revolution. This style, something that feels unique to Speakeasy Society’s long-form shows (The Vow, unlike its predecessors, runs around 90 minutes,) makes this production much more akin to Speakeasy’s Johnny Got His Gun masterpiece The Johnny Cycle in scope, scale, and ambition than the chapters in Kansas we’ve seen thus far.
In another nod to Johnny Cycle—particularly Johnny: The Living from 2017—The Vow’s multi-path technique makes it a show that’s extremely repeatable, begging to be seen again. Guests can return to represent a different faction, adding new wrinkles to an already impressively complex story. This set up is only bolstered by the stunning locale at St. Marks Episcopal Church in Glendale, CA—a house of worship that is far from traditional, providing a wealth of nooks and crannies to hide secrets in. Crowning over all this are the always breathtaking abilities of the Speakeasy ensemble; thanks to them, the entire performance vibrates on another level. Each actor is prepared to react differently to members of all five tracks—the amount of skill and preparation that goes in to each performance is second-to none. This perfect combination of elements is the very core of immersive theatre, and Speakeasy Society not only perfectly defines the genre, it continually sets the benchmark for the emotional affect this kind of art should have on its audience.
The Vow moves from strength to strength, from sandbox style to a story on rails, providing yet another glimpse into the staging abilities of the creative team behind Kansas: Julianne Just, Matthew Bamberg-Johnson, and Genevieve Gearhart, the latter two pulling double duty as actors in the pivotal roles of Phil and Phoebe Daring throughout the series. Adding in the sandbox element of The Vow alone is a testimony to Speakeasy Society’s ability to evolve and blend immersive styles to provide a fuller experience for their guests. Productions like this, creators like this, represent the heart of the immersive theater community: a commitment to art and experience lovingly staged and beautifully executed.
Of course, there’s more to tonight than simple nuptials—I knew that going in, but even as I descend the church steps out into the hazy night, I’m still thinking about that very first night. It was pouring, a rare storm in Los Angeles casting a foreboding shadow as the rotten core of Oz was slowly being revealed to me. Lyman was right, there weren’t wrong choices, not really, but Lyman’s wasn’t the only warning—and I’m sure it was a warning now—that I received that night. The Wizard, tucked away on a leaking porch and stinking of drink, had words for me too. He stood, hiding under the thick, wet sky and sighed, glancing sternly at me. “There’s a storm coming, you know…and this?” He gestured, raising his open hand towards the sopping ceiling. “this….is just rain.”
I find myself picturing The Vow as the very edge of that storm, the wind having built during the four chapters before it and the thunder beginning to rumble in the distance. There’s more consequences coming, of course, they’re brewing in the harsh weather, but I know my choices will guide me through. The Kansas Collection, and particularly The Vow, succeeds on such a grand scale because it consistently crackles with tension throughout, almost like the air before a lightning strike. So put on your colors, try to ignore the humid air, and enjoy the royal wedding celebration while you can; it’s that one last breath before the skies open up.