Review: “The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe”
- OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic
An immersive theatrical evening of fine dining, cocktails and poetry, in the company of ghosts
“Knock once, hear a double-knock in response, knock three times and come in.” – Instructs me an usher at the heavy solid door of Mazie Bar and Super Club in Williamsburg. One of the founding members of Poe Society greets me and walks me downstairs to a speakeasy and back in time. I find myself in the cozy and dimly lit St. Charles Cellar, a gathering place for the members of Society, surrounded by another 29 audience members seated for dinner. It is October 7th 1949, the 100th anniversary since Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious death. And, on this night, the Poe enthusiasts, Virginia (Caroline Banks), John (Jeffrey Robb) and James (Gordon Palagi), attempt to summon the spirit of the great poet to find out the true reason of his death.
Before the séance begins, three hosts walk from table to table, visibly exited about the experiment. The guests get to enjoy each other’s company, fine dining and cocktails, while soaking up the intimate atmosphere of the space designed by John McCormic. The charmingly mismatched vintage chairs, wine collection, mirrors with spotted glass and deer skulls on the walls are wrapped with gloom; only low hanging filament bulbs and candles on the tables glow softly.
In a place like this it’s easy to believe in ghosts and to imagine yourself a member of a secret society. The bell informs the audience of the beginning of the meeting and the trio of founders fills us in on the results of their research regarding Poe’s death, the “cooping theory”. Edgar Allan Poe died at the age of 40 under unclear circumstance. Many blame his untimely demise on alcohol poisoning, tuberculosis, heart disease or rabies.
However some, the founders of the Poe Society included, believe that Poe became a victim of “cooping”, a form of electoral fraud common in the early 19th century. Gangs, hired by candidates, kidnapped drunk, homeless and otherwise incapacitated people and held them in some cellar, “cooped up as chickens”. On the day of the election, the unfortunate fellas were further drugged and forced to vote for “the right candidate”. Sometimes they had to do it repeatedly wearing a disguise and those who disobeyed were beaten mercilessly.
The chilling draft’s wind of the recent US presidential election raised the, hair on the back of my neck. If only we could ask the medium Madam Harlow (Dara Kramer), to look into November 8th, 2016. But we are here for Poe, to hear about his misfortunes on the election day of October 3, 1849, when he was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious, wearing clothes that weren’t his.
The rituals summoning the spirits might be seen by skeptics as a well put together show. The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe is an upside-down version of this kind of entertainment. While it is a theatrical evening, something mysterious does happen: actors give in to Poe’s poetry entirely, which makes for some raw and intense readings of “Raven” and “Annabel Lee” among others. Never had I thought of an actor as being possessed by the writer through the text, and yet I can’t find other words to describe what I saw. The beautiful, haunting soundtrack by Manuel “CJ” Pelayo and Conor Heffernan further enhances the experience, complimenting Poe’s dark and restless poetry.
The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe started its open-ended run at St. Mazie Bar and Super Club, 345 Grand Street, Williamsburg Brooklyn. Wednesdays at 6:30pm and 10:30pm, Sundays at 2:30pm. Tickets start at $75, there is $25 food and beverage minimum. The information specific to each version of the experience can be found below. Discounts are available exclusively on Today Tix (site and app). Bookings can be made on the production's website:
The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe is conceived and directed by Aaron Salazar. It is produced by the Poseidon Theatre Company in association with St. Mazie Bar & Super Club. Book is by Nate Suggs, additional material by Samantha Lacey Johnson. Design by John McCormick. Light Design by John Salutz. Music by Manuel “CJ” Pelayo and Conor Heffernan.
The cast is Caroline Banks, Jeffrey Robb, Gordon Palagi, Dara Kramer.
Spirits of the Dead Supper Club (Wednesdays at 6:30pm)
A full dinner and cocktail pre-show experience. Following the performance, there is live music offered upstairs for those who will stay, performed in a beautiful 1920s style bar with banquet seating and an outdoor patio. $115 tickets include a three-course prix-fixe dinner, reserved seating, priority entry and live music following the show upstairs in the St. Mazie Bar. $75 general admission tickets include general seating at communal tables; there is a $25 food and beverage minimum per guest. A full menu of cocktails, light fare and non-alcoholic drinks is available. Doors open at 6:30pm and the show starts at 8:00pm. Performance is 95 minutes plus a 20-minute intermission.
Tell Tale Heart Tavern (Wednesdays at 10:30pm)
A rollicking Absinthe cocktail party pre-show experience. $100 tickets include two Absinthe drinks, house wine, beer, reserved seating and priority entrance. General admission tickets are $75 and there is a $25 beverage minimum per guest. Absinthe service is available as well a full bar and cocktail menu. Doors open at 10:30pm for drinks. Show runs 80 minutes without intermission.
Virginia's Brunch (Sunday at 2:30pm)
A choice of two brunch seatings: 12:30pm or 1:30pm. Brunch is served in the beautiful outdoor patio. $100 ticket includes prix-fixe brunch with entree, coffee or tea and a mimosa or bloody mary, reserved seating and priority entrance to the show, which runs 80 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Gordon Palagi in "The Cooping Theory: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?," presented by Poseiden Theatre Company at St. Mazie Bar and Supper Club, 345 Grand Street, Williamsburg Brooklyn. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.