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Theatre in Review: The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?/Seeing You

Top: Gordon Palagi. Photo: Johannes Oberman. Bottom: Seeing You. Photo: Steven Truman Gray

The march of immersive theatre continues, with two new offerings opening this month. The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? takes you to the St. Mazie Bar and Supper Club, a stylish place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (I attended one of the Sunday brunch shows; the food is delicious.) The show unfolds in the St. Charles Cellar speakeasy, a spooky place with candles and old-fashioned filament bulbs. It is, we are told, October 7, 1949, the centennial of Poe's death. We are the guests of the Poe Society, an organization that has devolved down to three members; it is their devout hope that we will sign up, thus expanding their rolls.

The members of the society are convinced that Poe, who, according to the common wisdom, perished from drink and delirium, was, at the very least, a victim of "cooping," the nineteenth-century practice by which barflies were loaded up with liquor and sent out to vote several times in a single election. (And you thought Russian hacking was bad!) To prove their point, the members of the society have invited a medium to contact Poe and clear the matter up once and for all.

If you've seen a single Hollywood horror film, you know where this is going. After much preparation, including closing our eyes and cleansing the atmosphere with torches made from tiny blocks of wood, the spirit world is contacted, and each member of the society in turn is possessed by Poe's restless spirit. This leads to extensive quoting from "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "Spirits of the Dead," and other works.

What with all this carrying on, and with dialogue like "No mortal can ever know the workings of the spirit realm," I had the sensation of being an extra in one of Roger Corman's film adaptations of Poe from the early sixties -- Pit and the Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher, among others -- which had teenagers screaming at drive-ins all across America. Whether you find this sort of hokum entertaining is strictly up to you. The literary-minded might be amused, as may large groups, lubricated by cocktails procured from the bar. I'm told that the Saturday night absinthe show gets pretty rowdy. I was alternately amused and irritated, and, even with a brief eighty-minute running time, I was more than ready for it to be over long before Poe's spirit was sent back to the astral plane.

The entire experience has been conceived by Aaron Salazar, who also produced and directed. It is a production of Poseidon Theatre Company. The script, with a big nod to Poe, is by Nate Suggs, with additional material by Samantha Lacey Johnson. John McCormick's design is suitably gloomy, aided by John Salutz's lighting, which inserts some eerie green washes when the spirit world begins to act up. Music is credited to Manuel "CJ" Pelayo and Conor Heffernan; I don't know if either of them also served as sound designer, since none is credited, but the use of their music, plus all sorts of other piped-in tunes (including, rather surprisingly, "Some Enchanted Evening") makes for such constant distraction -- at times, threatening to drown out the actors -- that it becomes positively grating. The removal and/or tuning down of extraneous underscoring would help no end.

The cast consists of Caroline Banks, Dara Kramer, Jeffrey Robb, and Gordon Palagi, all of whom throw themselves into their tasks with abandon -- although, as with the attraction discussed below and other such immersive entertainments, I find that actors mingling with the audience come off as awfully, well, actory. Doesn't anyone encourage them to dial it down a bit?

The much more elaborate -- and much, much sillier -- Seeing You takes place in a former warehouse in the Meatpacking District. "Welcome to Hoboken," you are told as you enter the space and are given a dog tag to wear. Indeed, we are in that storied Jersey city during World War II; for the first part of the evening, everyone wanders around, à la Sleep No More, visiting a series of vignettes that unfold repeatedly. The atmosphere is sinister, almost toxic: A Japanese art teacher named Grace is suspected of disloyalty; a senator's secretary frantically rifles through his desk; a nightclub owner cheats on his black singing star with another woman; a couple of Gis have a steamy encounter in a men's room. As with The Cooping, the general acting level is rather over the top, given the actors' proximity to us; then again, nobody seems interested in naturalism. I know this because in each vignette, sooner or later, someone will slip into a studied, thoroughly unnatural pose that makes it look like he or she studied with Martha Graham.

This is all moderately amusing, if you don't mind occasionally having your space invaded. One of the actors playing a GI grabbed me and wrapped a red curtain around us, leaving us standing in darkness, less than an inch apart. He confided to me that he had super powers, and asked me to identify them. Later, the senator approached me and asked if he shouldn't be suspicious of Grace. Then the entire audience is asked to stand around the senator's desk and fill out, on small sheets of paper, how many Japanese lives we would be willing to take in order to save a million American lives. This is the first instance of the show's preoccupation with the atomic bomb, and, in a production less glib than Seeing You it would provoke genuinely serious discussion.

From here on in, the evening becomes weirder and weirder. A group is led off and put in line to donate blood; everyone is given an IV tube connected to a Red Cross symbol, which rises and lowers. The music sounds like thrash metal and the action is interrupted by people in hazmat suits, carrying boxes of what, I guess, is meant to be atomic waste. Couples take part in two or three melancholy pas de deux set to some kind of indie folk/pop that I didn't recognize. A group of six is invited to sit down with an actress at a family dinner table; her exaggerated gestures of mourning were undercut by her guests, who either smirked or looked uncomfortable. There is kind of a surreal USO show that -- in the manner, but not the achievement, of Stephen Sondheim's Follies -- breaks down into a series of bizarre turns featuring a bearded man in drag, a menacing plaster of Paris Uncle Sam head, and a chorine dressed in a mirrored tuxedo with a giant A-bomb on her head.

And so it goes for ninety long, long minutes. Are audiences really itching to be herded like cattle through a feel-bad entertainment about World War II? I guess we will find out, although the overbearing pretensions of Seeing You would seem to be a poor fit for the type of person looking for an amusing interactive night out.

Seeing You was created by Randy Weiner, who gave us the equally unamusing Queen of the Night, and Ryan Heffington, who, we are told, has been described as "Martha Graham on meth," whatever that means. Desi Santiago's production design uses the space cleverly, and, in at least one or two instances -- the senator's town hall meeting, the USO show -- creates a visually interesting environment. His costumes also have a nice period feel. Jamie Roderick's lighting effectively helps to reshape the space, and Shannon Slaton's sound design provides a series of musical selections and effects that are sometimes perfectly in period -- I never, ever get tired of hearing the Andrews Sisters sing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" -- and sometimes purposely anachronistic.

There are instances in which the immersive format can be made to work, but Seeing You seems to be trying too hard to provide interactive kicks while also schooling the audience in rather obvious points about wartime ethics. If you're looking for a good time, a trip to "Hoboken" on 14th Street may not be indicated -- David Barbour

(22 June 2017)

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