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© Jonathan Slaff
© Jonathan Slaff

Theater: Get Immersive With the Dead

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 3 July 2017
Spirits from the past are center stage in two New York shows about artists who have long since passed to the other side, who suddenly find themselves involved in earthly matters once again.

In The Cooping Theory, Poseidon Theatre Company explores the mystery surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe. Meanwhile, Third Rail Projects’ Ghost Light pays homage to the unseen lives of theatre artists.

A sinisterly festive atmosphere awaits behind the door of St. Mazie Bar and Supper Club in Williamsburg, where theatregoers are invited to attend a special meeting of the Poe Society. Devoted fans of Poe have come together to honor him, but, as attendees of this meeting soon learn, they intend to do more than celebrate.

Strange demise

It is October 7, 1949, and we have gathered to commemorate the centenary of Poe’s strange demise. This date is so special, in fact, that the host and his friends have purchased the services of a medium to help them contact the spirit of the troubled author. But before the séance begins, dinner and cocktails, both excellent, are served in the dining room, where John McCormick’s designs have created a haphazardly mystical atmosphere.

Gordon Palagi in “The Cooping Room: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?”
Gordon Palagi in “The Cooping Room: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?”| © Jonathan Slaff

Poe Society members—Virginia (Caroline Banks), John (Jeffrey Robb), and James (Gordon Palagi)—mingle with the guests throughout dinner; each brims with anticipation about the possibilities the night holds. If guests engage in conversation with the actors, they can learn about the history of the society, the characters’ relationships with each other, and why they are so devoted to figuring out what happened to Poe on his last night alive. It’s easy to be swept up in their excitement, even as John assures the audience, “In no way are you in danger.”

Demonic spirits

When Madam Harlow (Dara Kramer) arrives, the evening takes a darker turn as supernatural elements kick in and the cast begins to perform Nate Suggs’ script, which features additional material by Samantha Lacey Johnson. Smudge sticks and incense are lit to protect us from “any negative or demonic spirits,” but the more corporeal conflicts among the club’s members become apparent. James is skeptical of the medium, while John is determined to learn the truth about Poe, and Virginia earnestly attempts to keep the peace between the two.

It is at this point that The Cooping Theory is explained to the audience. Poe’s death has been variously attributed to heart disease, alcohol poisoning, and tuberculosis, but the three devoted admirers aren’t convinced by any of these explanations. They believe Poe fell foul of a form of political fraud known as cooping. Victims, usually drunk or homeless people, were kidnapped and locked in cellars—“cooped up”—until they were released, drugged, and ordered to vote for a certain candidate.

With the help of Madame Harlow, the Society hopes to discover the truth, but Poe is less than willing to provide a direct answer. Possessing each of the members, he communicates through his works, as the actors give a grief-stricken rendition of “Annabel Lee” and a frenzied recitation of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

“Nevermore!”

The play’s performances are passionate and physical: the cast members crash into the walls and collapse on the floor. The lighting (designed by John Salutz) flickers and dims, ominous music (by Manuel “CJ” Pelayo and Conor Heffernan) fills the room, and a voice frequently booms “Nevermore!”

The Cooping Theory, which was conceived and directed by Aaron Salazar, is a feast for the senses (and the stomach) but it fails to completely satisfy. The production would benefit from a larger space that permitted movement from room to room. The popularity of immersive theater owes, in part, to audience members feeling as if they are performers themselves. Since they have to stay seated throughout the entirety of The Cooping Theory, they are kept firmly in the roles of spectators.

Haunted theater

Movement—both onstage and off—is a vital part of Ghost Light, the latest immersive experience organized by Third Rail Projects, which has taken up residence at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. Conceived and directed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, this two-hour play invites its guests into the behind-the-scenes world of a theater and the secrets of those who inhabit it.

This theater is haunted, we are told in our first exchange with a cast member, and the unfolding performance definitively supports that statement. Guided through the building in staggered groups, guests are invited into dressing and storage rooms, a rehearsal space, and countless crowded hallways occupied by performers, janitors, stage managers, and technicians.

Jessy Smith in “Ghost Light”
Jessy Smith in “Ghost Light”| © Julietta Cervantes

Scenes include an actress writhing in agony on a staircase after drinking a bottle of poison, a stage hand (Josh Matthews) who matter-of-factly instructs us how to clean up after the ghosts that haunt the theater, and an enthusiastic playwright-performer (Carlton Cyrus Ward), who attempts to run a rehearsal but is constantly thwarted by a pesky spirit that won’t stop playing pranks.

Night after night…

It is not only the spirits of long-passed humans who inspire feelings of melancholy and nostalgia, but the endless cyclicality of the theater itself that repeated performances represent. The audience member’s feeling of being rooted in time as the actors perform the same words and motions night after night is conveyed as we repeatedly meet a man and woman engaged in an erotic pas de deux in various rooms backstage.

We also witness a scene riddled with the messy aftermath of a rowdy party, which the sleeping revelers clean up and immediately begin to destroy again through drinking and dancing. Backstage, an usher (Donna Ahmadi) gossips about a leading lady while efficiently stuffing programs, then removes the program’s inserts before pausing and asking if we could help her. She never can seem to finish these, she says sadly.

Donna Ahmadi in “Ghost Light”
Donna Ahmadi in “Ghost Light”| © Julietta Cervantes

Guests are passive observers in some scenes and active participants in others. They act alongside the cast members or help move the scenery during a performance. In the darkness backstage, it’s easy to succumb to the atmosphere created by Brett Banakis’ designs, which invoke the superstitions and legends that surround the mystery of the theater.

Sensually enticing

But at times the action lags, with scenes continuing beyond what is necessary. The fluid choreography is sensually enticing but could benefit from a more efficient approach, especially during the final scene, when the audience is guided to and seated in the actual theater to witness the cast eventually depart the stage.

The legend of the ghost light that inspired the show’s title states that a single bulb is left burning when a theater is otherwise dark to hinder—or light the way for—ghosts. After spending two hours immersed in Third Rail Projects’ vision of the past, one is inclined to believe this company believes in them.

The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? resumes October 11. Tickets go on sale on August 11. info@poseidontheatrecompany.com

Ghost Light continues at the Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023. Call Telecharge for tickets: (212) 239-6200