It’s near impossible to read any of Edgar Allan Poe’s works without connecting their dark, unnerving despair with that of his own life. Orphaned at an early age, Poe’s adulthood was characterized by debt, failure, and the deaths of those closest to him, including his wife Virginia. Two years after Virginia’s death, Poe was found delirious and incoherent in the streets of Baltimore, wearing clothes that were not his own. He passed away a few days later. His death has been shrouded in gothic mystery and controversy, and the eerie circumstances surrounding it are reminiscent of those in his writings.
This is the launching point of Poseidon Theatre Company’s new immersive work, The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? The year is 1949, a century after Poe’s death. Audience members are invited down to the speakeasy cellar of St. Mazie Bar and Supper Club in Brooklyn for a meeting of the Poe Society. During the hour-long dinner service (which was very tasty), the society’s three members introduce themselves to you. There’s Virginia (Caroline Banks), a scholar named after Poe’s wife. John (Jeffrey Robbs) is a psychologist financing the society and James (Gordon Palagi) is a skeptic whose opinions often get ignored.
Here’s largely where the immersive nature of the production comes into play. More Great Comet than Sleep No More, the actors interact with you and around you while you are seated, though they may pull you aside for a brief chat in the hallway. They also might give you an incensed stick to burn to purify the area. I’ve wondered in the past about what actually constitutes as ‘immersive,’ but PTC’s definition vividly appeals to all the senses.
The society has invited a medium (Dara Kramer) to call upon Poe’s ghost to solve the mystery of his death once and for all. The title refers to the society’s best working theory: a 19th century practice known as ‘cooping’ in which political gangs kidnapped strangers and forced them to vote multiple times at different stations under different aliases, often in disguise. The victims were often drugged and beaten if they did not comply.
The medium is successful at contacting Poe, but with complications, as supernatural events are wont to have. But what follows doesn’t ever manage to raise the stakes for any drama to unfold. At its best, The Cooping Theory is an homage to Poe’s writing and a meditation on the grief mirrored in his life and his works. There are beautiful recitations from “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” among others. But the story never develops fully to make us invested in the society’s mission. Their plot feels doomed from the start.
That the production does do well is setting a melancholic, though inviting atmosphere for us to relive Poe’s desperate final years. This is in large part due to the music and sound design by Conor Heffernan and Manuel “Cj” Pelayo. This is a gratifying part of the immersion of the play. Their lush, surrounding sounds helped move the events of the play forward. St. Mazie itself also works wonders in setting the feel of the play. The actors note that Poe himself passed through the one-time speakeasy, and it certainly feels it. The long, gloomy, candlelit corridor stretching back to the entrance makes a perfectly spooky entry point for the seance’s host.
The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? is directed by Aaron Salazar and written by Nate Suggs and Samantha Lacey-Johnson. It plays at St. Mazie Bar and Supper Club. Tickets here.