Poe and poetry: Quaint and curious show wraps audience in words

Who is that rapping at my chamber door?: Actor Gordon Palagi performs in thrice-weekly show “The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe” in Williamsburg.
Jonathan Slaff

It’s dinner and a shroud.

A new immersive theater show in Williamsburg uses the words of Edgar Allan Poe to create a delightfully gloomy backdrop for your evening out. “The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?” began its open-ended run at St. Mazie’s Bar and Supper Club this week, and it takes a very different tactic from most interactive shows.

Many companies have tried to take advantage of the live experience to offer an experience that no other medium can, making the audience as much a part of the event as the actors. Some shows, such as the acclaimed “Sleep No More” opt for big sets, moody atmospheres, and a strong foundation in dance and abstract movement to overwhelm the audience. The Poseidon Theatre Company, instead, seeks to make its text the main attraction.

Our night begins before we even enter, waiting outside St. Maizie’s Bar on Grand Street, where we rap upon the chamber door and are clandestinely let inside. Downstairs, it is 1949, and members of “Poe’s Appreciation Society” welcome us to an exclusive meeting to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death.

“We have a very special guest tonight,” the actors coo.

St. Mazie’s is a functioning bar oozing with dusky charisma, and it proves to be a tastefully ghoulish setting. We enjoy drinks and dinner from an accomplished menu (visitors must choose either a prixe-fix meal, or face a $25 food and beverage minimum), before learning that we are not simply gathered here tonight to celebrate the horror writer, but rather, with the aid of the powerful medium Madame Harlow, to summon his spirit. And then, of course, things go wrong

In terms of “immersiveness” the play is very mild, choosing a safe approach — the audience participation is limited to burning some incense and joining in the seance ritual. It also does away with any serious plot, playing out as an atmospheric mélange of dinner theater and poetry reading. When Poe himself arrives, he speaks entirely using his own written words, and much of the pleasure of the night comes from the dramatic recitation of beautiful text.

With so much relying on spoken words, the chops of the performers are key; and the results are consistently engaging. The emotionally earnest and vocally proficient Caroline Banks is especially notable, as she fights with an overly-loud soundscape and comes out ahead.

The show flirts with a real story, but the narrative is ultimately wispy as a ghost. But the questions regarding Poe’s actual demise (a genuine historical mystery) are just a framework for the crepuscular, morbid mood experience — the real reason to go.

“The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?” at St. Mazie’s Bar and Supper Club [345 Grand St. between Havemeyer Street and Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg, (212) 457–0889, www.knock3xs.com]. Wednesdays at 6:30 and 10:30 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm. $75–$115.

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