The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?

Gordon Palagi in “The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?” Photo: Jonathan Slaff.

By Sarah Downs

October, 1949. In a cozy, dimly lit basement speakeasy the Poe Society have gathered.  Dedicated to all things Poe, Virginia (Caroline Banks), John (Jeffrey Robb), and James (Gordon Palagi) have chosen tonight to examine the mystery surrounding the author’s death – was it consumption? was it rabies? or was he “cooped” –press ganged into repeatedly voting in various disguises, literally cooped up (and kept drunk) between visits to the voting booth. To test their cooping theory, the Poe-obsessed trio have called in a medium, Madam Harlow (Dara Kramer).  As they try to contact the author, drama ensues, bringing Poe’s emotionally fraught writing to life.

But first – dinner!  The Cooping Theory is an ‘immersive’ theater experience which includes dinner and drinks.  From oysters to charcuterie, the menu partakes of the era.  I particularly liked the deviled eggs.  The bespoke drinks, a specialty, are well worth their reputation.  (I felt it my critic’s duty to try one – I’m noble that way.)  The engaging trio of Poe enthusiasts introduce themselves to you while you dine, walking among the tables offering various tidbits of context as they set the scene.  When Madam Harlow arrives, the show begins.

Dara Kramer is a very believable medium, with her compelling focus and measured pace.  Gordon Palagi, with Byronic demeanor and cheerful grandiosity throws himself into the part of James.  In contrast, Jeffrey Robb who as John has ushered us to our seat, is a bit more buttoned up, making his transformation through the séance all the more a contrast.  As she narrates the purpose of the evening, Caroline Banks as Virginia is sweetly earnest and likely the sanest among the bunch (or is she?).  All of the actors commit fully, maintaining a level of energy that at times overwhelms the space but which is nonetheless commendable.  The difficulty is that the piece starts at such a high level of energy, there is little place to go.  The actors have all learned an impressive amount of Poe’s convoluted text, into which they breathe much dramatic life, but thought it leaves you a little breathless, in the end the horror doesn’t fully develop into a narrative.

Designer John McCormick has effectively recreated a down-at-heel speakeasy with its low ceilings and eclectic decor.  You walk through the door into a different world.  Jazz plays quietly in the background; candles flicker on tables and shelves; staff and patrons speak in hushed tones.  As the séance progresses the mood changes, as eerie lighting and haunting original music engulf the space.  The music’s crescendo oversteps at times, which can be hard on sensitive ears, but it is very effective.

The Cooping Theory is great fun.  In a dining setting you cannot fully suspend your disbelief, but you’re there to enjoy the experience, not dig into the soul of your existential angst (Thank God – we live in New York City, how much more angst can we take?).  It’s like a ride at a theme park without the tacky.  You get into your seat, go on a whirlwind trip and then the lights come up, and it’s back to your drink and conversation.  Everyone was smiling as they paid their checks.

The staff could not be nicer or more helpful, and the menu is varied enough to have something delicious for everyone.  It is well worth a trip to Williamsburg to check out The Cooping Theory. Who knows? Maybe the truth will finally be revealed.

The Cooping Theory, written by Nate Suggs and Samantha Lacey Johnson; directed by Aaron Salazar; with Caroline Banks, Dara Kramer, Gordon Palagi and Jeffrey Robb; set design by John McCormick; music composed by Conor Heffernan and Manuel “Cj” Pelayo; lighting design by John Salutz; costumes designed by the ensemble.  Performances:  Wednesdays at 6:30 PM and 10:30 PM and Sundays at 2:30.  Run time 95 minutes plus one intermission.

Presented by the Poseidon Theatre Company, in the speakeasy at St. Mazie’s Bar and Supper Club, 345 Grand Street, Williamsburg Brooklyn. Tickets $75-$115.  Discounts are available exclusively on Today Tix; box office: 212-457-0889.  All ticket sales are final.  $25 food & beverage minimum per guest.  

Sarah Downs

Author: Sarah Downs

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