The title question of Poseidon Theatre Company’s immersive/interactive production Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? The Cooping Theory 1969 is probably not one most people have asked themselves, even if they were aware that the great author had died mysteriously in 1849. Even less likely to be known is the second phrase in the title: “the cooping theory.”
In the 1830s and ’40s, bands of thugs (of the same type as in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York) would, on Election Day, round up vagabonds and drunkards and ply them with booze to vote, under threat of death, for whichever candidate had paid for their fraudulent ballots. The theory presumes that the alcoholic Poe’s demise may have been related to cooping. His body was found on a Baltimore street.
The premise of the Poseidon Theatre Company’s show is that New York City’s Poe Society is holding a mixer for newly sworn members (i.e., the audience). In small groups, after a knock on a corrugated metal door in the basement space at RPM Underground, they are admitted to the society’s quarters. Blocking a long corridor are two pale, blond characters. They introduce themselves rigidly as Cordelia and Crispin Carlyle (Estelle Olivia and Brian Alford, respectively), and Crispin notes that “we are related.” If you know “The Fall of the House of Usher,” you can guess how.
After an oath, administered by a morose Jimmy Harder (Johnny Pozzi), the audience is directed to a bar. The first hour is a mixer for the audience to get to know the characters, who include Tom (a handsome and voluble Aaron Latta-Morissette), who wears a black pullover and plaid pants, and Ana Carver (Makaela Shealy), an alcoholic and neurotic who hints of a relationship between Tom and Gina (Samantha Lacey Johnson).
Nate Raven’s script sets the piece in 1969, but it’s not clear why. Surprisingly, there’s no mention of (or visual reference to) Vincent Price, although in the 1960s he starred in eight Poe-based films, including The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Oblong Box. Nonetheless, actors slip in references to people of the era, such as the Manson family and Dorothy Kilgallen, the What’s My Line? star who died of an overdose in 1965, and Tom talks about the sit-in at Columbia.
In the second half of Cooping Theory, silence is imposed as Madame Harlow (Dara Kramer), a medium hired by Gina, enters to conduct a séance. Internal strife among the Poe Society members careens out of control, as does the séance.
The RPM space is terrific: designed by Seok Huh, it consists of corridors with small rooms off them, most of which have windows onto the corridors or the next room. Walls are decorated with posters, vinyl and signs from popular brands a half century ago, such as Flying A and Beech-Nut Chewing Tobacco; in the bar is a mural of the Beatles. Aaron Salazar, who conceived and directed, uses the whole space—in the first part, Pozzi and Johnson plant themselves in a corridor to sing “The House of the Rising Sun,” with its hints of decadence.
But once the séance goes awry, the show does too. The characters become possessed by spirits of Poe or his family as the audience watches and listens. Latta-Morissette and Harder adopt herky-jerky movements adeptly as their bodies are “inhabited.”
The actors move around the sprawling underground as in Sleep No More, but that show works because there’s no single narrative to latch on to, and there are objects everywhere to examine. But Raven (also the assistant director) has only one story to tell; the characters are possessed, and, whether catatonic, cataleptic, psychotic or just plain frantic, are too much of the same. Aurally, Manuel Pelayo and Giancarlo Bonfanti have contributed a score that is eerie, with requisite plinks and drones to signal foreboding.
As the mass hysteria becomes more confusing, the chief diversion is listening to the snatches of Poe and trying to place them: Gina quotes “Annabel Lee,” and Jimmy recites bits of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the latter accompanied by a loud thumping in Sung Oh’s overbearing sound design.
The Cooping Theory is an ambitious show, the venue is engaging, and the young actors are uniformly talented and enthusiastic, but the overall effect is akin to an exhausting acid trip.
Poseidon Theatre Company’s Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? The Cooping Theory 1969 runs through Nov. 2 at RPM Underground (244 W. 54th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; a full schedule is planned for Halloween week. There is a $25 minimum for food and beverage at the bar. For tickets and information, visit knock3xs.com.