As a child, I poured myself into the Land of Oz novels as soon as I watched the classic Wizard of Oz film. I was obsessed. Long before I would discover J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling, the world building and mythology that L. Frank Baum had built in his novels hooked me. What he had written was astounding and, compared to the authors listed above, I had always felt that there hadn’t been enough exploration into the world that he had built. Little did I know that as an adult, The Speakeasy Society would have fulfilled my childhood wish to see the mythology brought to life. And, little did I know, that I would mourn the end of their long term project with the conclusion of the final chapter as soon as I hopped into my car to drive home.
About two and a half years ago when I was first entering into the realm of immersive theatre and all it would entail, I chanced upon The Speakeasy Society’s KANSAS COLLECTION. Many had recommended it to me, especially as someone new to the immersive scene. I hadn’t known that as soon as I stepped into that army recruitment tent that I would be pulled into what would arguably be an adventure of a lifetime. That fateful night I would meet Phoebe Daring as well as the slowly emerging Ozma, who did not hesitate to share her plans with me as soon as she found me to be reliable. A small part of me couldn’t help but marvel at this omnipresent being’s ambition and charisma. However, as the chapters unfolded throughout the course of the next couple of years, I would soon come to learn that ambition and charisma was dangerous. That it destroyed more often than did anything meaningful. And that what initially drew me to Ozma would end up pushing me away.
As you can see, much can change in the span of just two or so years. And last night The Speakeasy Society was able to wrap up the story in the final chapter titled THE PORTAL.
THE PORTAL is the tenth and final chapter in THE KANSAS COLLECTION, a re-imagining of what took place within L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz novels. As participants enter this new installment, we have been brought together to either witness or assist Queen Ozma in opening up the largest portal ever created in order to ensure her complete domination over Kansas. Of course, as has been the case throughout the course of the series, there are forces that are determined to stop her since opening the portal will happen to have plenty of consequences if anything possibly goes awry.
This chapter of THE KANSAS COLLECTION was going to be an ambitious undertaking from the get-go. Not only had everything been leading up to an epic final battle between Phil Daring (Matthew Bamberg-Johnson) and Queen Ozma/Phoebe Daring (Genevieve Gearhart), but any questions that had been left lingering on returning participants’ minds needed to be addressed. And The Speakeasy Society succeeds on all fronts, making use of the 90 minutes they’ve allotted themselves to tackle the most pressing things while also providing a satisfactory ending, especially for those who have followed this journey from the beginning. The opening scene establishes the stakes immediately. There will be a showdown to determine the fate of all involved in this saga. What I greatly appreciated about this scene, in particular, was how the new attendees of THE KANSAS COLLECTION were integrated into the opening scene. It seemed like the additional bonus content that new audience members were paying for definitely brought them up to speed based off of what I observed.
After the opening scene concluded, we were split up into smaller groups, which is where I really do think The Speakeasy Society shines logistically. I was a part of the group paired off with General Jo Files, who had been tasked with questioning Phil Daring. This honestly was my favorite scene only because I had spent the bulk of my time over the years interacting with Files and seeing his arc slowly unfold. Zan Headley again shines as we see General Files’ internal struggle play out as he comes to terms with the fact that his life doesn’t mean anything to the Queen. And that his true loyalties lie elsewhere. This coupled with the emotional and physical levels that he has to hit while interacting with Phil Daring and John McCormick’s Oscar Diggs really hit home for me.
I’ll be blunt. I really haven’t had much interaction with Phil Daring leading up to the events of the final chapter. Part of it was because I had missed out on chapters that featured Phil due to illness, so I didn’t have that connection built up. I knew enough prior to THE PORTAL to know that he had never appeared to be much of a leader and that, compared to Queen Ozma, I couldn’t help but shy away as he attempted to try to figure out who he was and what his abilities were. However, it was a refreshing surprise to see the growth in the character in this scene. It felt like he was finally coming into his own and the self-awareness the character presented did more to get the audience to invest further into his task – to free his sister from Ozma and make sure she was safe.
Similar to Phil Daring, I did not have quite the connection with Oscar Diggs that I felt I had with General Files. Part of it was because, again, I had missed a chapter that he was featured prominently in. However, to see him go from the drunken, cowardly man that he was at the beginning of the series when I had first met him to someone who was willing to do whatever it took to make sure that the right thing was done was an amazing arc to witness. To see John McCormick take this character throughout this journey has been a blessing to witness and I’m happy that we were able to see the Wizard climb his way to the top.
The following scene was arguably the best in terms of performance, intensity, and overall messages delivered. However, I did realize how my lack of in-depth familiarity with the characters of the Tinman, Tik Tok, and Jack Pumpkinhead impacted the punch that the scene could have delivered for me. Nonetheless, it was still immensely powerful.
James Cowan completely stole the scene in my eyes. His performances with The Speakeasy Society have always been masterful and, in our scene with him, as we waited for what would happen next, we got to see something other than the killer of Dorothy. We saw a broken man who was doing anything he could to bring some semblance of life and spirit back into him. His handling of the topic of death could have easily been ruined by a less careful delivery, but instead, we received a performance that was natural and completely heartwrenching. The audience – both old and new – also got a considerable amount of backstory to fill in the blanks as to why the Tinman is the way that he is, providing us with an understanding of the character’s motives leading up to this point. And, for that, I have to say that maybe as a whole, the Tinman is my new favorite character from THE KANSAS COLLECTION.
I would be remiss if I forgot about Tik Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, played respectfully by Nikhil Pai and Michael Bates. Although I had not been super familiar with the characters within the realm of THE KANSAS COLLECTION, no one could deny the powerful connection and love that the two characters had for one another in this scene. That is what makes it so heartbreaking when the two come to a head with the Tinman because we know shenanigans are going to go down. And the characters love for each other ends up teaching all who were able to witness this particular scene the importance and strength of bonds when faced against taxing circumstances, which was honestly one of the more pertinent things to take away from the show.
As we entered the final scene, it became evident how easily it would be for audience members to return to get the other side of the story. While my group got to spend time with certain characters, others had been split off to interact with others, getting to see different events play out and different storylines conclude. While it is disappointing not to get to interact with other characters, we did get to learn what happened, which provided some additional shock value and upped the stakes further before getting to witness an epic battle play out.
The element of the story that I was most nervous about was seeing how any battles would be handled from a technical and logistical perspective, but I will say that I was not disappointed. What I do think helped to really carry the epic battle to all new fantasmical elements was the wonderfully evil performance by Genevieve Gearhart as Queen Ozma. It’s been such a pleasure to see the character evolve and transform throughout the course of THE KANSAS COLLECTION and it came to true Maleficent-style heights when it came time for the Queen to unleash her grandmaster plan. Gearhart has always delivered the character with such fun and aplomb that a small part of me mourns not being able to see the Queen come to life once more in future installments.
A show would be nothing without the work of those running around behind-the-scenes. I don’t think they get enough credit, but I have to give a special shout out to Julianne Just, Chris Porter, and Andrew Lia for tackling such an ambitious final show. The lighting and smoke effects utilized in the show also really helped provide the necessary kick we needed to really get invested in the world that we were immersed in. Also, I want to give a shout out to John Henningsen for providing an extra spot of light and grounding throughout the series to help remind the audience as to where exactly we are starting and where we are ending.
One minor quibble I have regarding THE PORTAL was how prevalent certain messages were within the realm of the story. Particularly, the concept of right versus wrong. At times, it did feel like we were beaten over the head with that particular message. However, to illustrate how minor such a quibble is, I would also argue that sometimes people need to be beaten upside the head in order to get what they are being shown. While the delivery might not have been my own personal preference, I do think that the messages that The Speakeasy Society hoped to get across in this epic, thought-provoking conclusion were pertinent, especially given current affairs outside of the realm of fiction. There was certainly a lot to take away and digest and, for that, I do tip my hat to the creative team.
Another thing that I want to speak to is how much my opinions of characters had changed throughout the course of the series. I think one of the most telling things that The Speakeasy Society has done is force us to look ourselves in the face and figure out where we are in our own personal development. One of the ways that they have been able to do this is by drawing out the chapters to provide the necessary character development needed to put things into perspective. What helped as well was the length of time it took to have us arrive at the final chapter. As a veteran returning to the story, I know that where I had initially been in terms of my “side” was no longer comfortable due to the knowledge I had acquired over the two and a half years I had invested in the series. Call it aging or maturation or acquiring life experience, but I do know that this significantly helped make the series far more impactful for me. I’m not super sure if others would agree with me, but it’s definitely something that I had taken into account as I left the show.
I want to speak more about how the rest of the show developed, but I do want to preserve elements of the story so as to provide audiences with surprises going into the show. Conclusions are, in my opinion, the hardest elements of any story (or essay) to execute. The bulk of the time I find that conclusions seldom leave us satisfied. However, THE PORTAL was honestly the only conclusion that could have possibly foreseen. It was well-executed, thoughtful, and – surprisingly – answered any and all questions that the audience might have had leading up to this finale. The Speakeasy Society has crafted a beautiful homage to the original source material with THE KANSAS COLLECTION while also making the subject matter relevant to modern audiences. And, while I’m saddened that the series is now over, I don’t think I could have asked for more in this final chapter.
THE KANTHE PORTAL will only be running for two weekends and then it’s all over. There will be performances starting now until June 8. Admission for veterans is $80 while new recruit costs are $100 with additional content to catch new recruits up. Tickets are limited for new recruits. For tickets and more info, visit them online at www.speakeasysociety.com.