Poseidon Theatre Company’s The Cooping Theory 1969: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?, described as a “new immersive paranormal experience,” is set at the RPM Underground which is more interesting than the play. This interactive event leads the audience through many of the 18 rooms, all of which are different, in this unusual venue by designer Seok Huh.
As for the show, it may be “the only story-driven, multi-room immersive experience in the heart of Times Square,” but as written by Nate Raven it is very thin on information about 19th century writer Poe. As conceived and directed by Aaron Salazar it is mainly participation in a séance to reach the author in order to hear his version of his mysterious death, which is neither spooky nor scary. Poe never actually appears except in spirit and not much happens. However, it takes a long time getting there.
When the audience arrives they are taken to a meeting of The Poe Society in the underground venue in groups of three and each person has to knock three times in order to be admitted. After being sworn in as members of the organization, they are taken to a central bar where they mingle with the five actors and other guests; food and drink is also available, including specially named Poe cocktails. At this time the “new members” get to ask the original members (i.e. actors) questions about the author.
They volunteer the information about the little known “Cooping Theory”: a 19th century voter fraud practiced by gangs was to kidnap, disguise and force unsuspecting victims to vote for a specific candidate multiple times. The victims (often out-of-towners or travelers) were plied with liquor and dressed in many outfits so that they could show up at the polling sites and vote repeatedly for the chosen candidate. Dressed in strange clothing, Poe’s delirious and inebriated body was found on Election Day, 1849, at a place in Baltimore where coopers were known to leave victims. As an unknown traveler he would have been prey to this corrupt and inhumane practice.
When all the members of the audience have been processed, the evening begins with the arrival of a medium Madame Harlow who conducts a séance. We follow her around the extraordinary space until Poe’s spirit appears to take over various actors. They begin to speak in tongues with pieces of Poe’s poetry and prose. Characters appear and disappear as we follow them into various rooms and in the later part there is a good deal of shouting and screaming. And that is about it. Those who are unfamiliar with Poe’s writing will be hard pressed to know what is his and what is by the playwright.
We are never told what the 1969 date represents as it is the 160th year since his birth and the 120th year since his death, neither of which are special anniversaries. However, Samantha Lacey Johnson’s period costumes create the ambiance of the 1969 time period.
The cast made up of Aaron Latta-Morissette, Makaela Shealy, Johnny Pozzi, Samantha Lacey Johnson, Brian Alford, Estelle Olivia, and Dara Kramer as Madam Harlow maintain their characters throughout the experience although other than Pozzi’s Jimmy who is described as rebellious and dangerous they all sort of blur into similar personas, with Shealy as the most suggestive. Kramer as the medium poses prettily with hands in air but doesn’t do much else. The original score by Manuel Pelayo and Giancarlo Bonfanti is eerie but not scary enough to make up for the lack of chills and thrills in the show.
The Cooping Theory 1969: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? is certainly a different theatrical experience. However, those who know their Poe will be bored and those who don’t will be mystified. The séance is neither theatrical enough nor scary enough for the lengthy time expended wandering the rooms and corridors. Only the fascinating venue with its various vitrines of different displays in each room is worth the visit. Edgar Allen Poe continues to remain a mystery.
The Cooping Theory 1969: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? (through November 2, 2019)
RPM Underground, 244 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.knock3xs.com
Running time: two hours and ten – 40 minutes (depending on check in procedures) with no intermission (first 40 minutes to one hour and ten minutes or so is a meet and greet in the club’s bar; last hour and 30 minutes the audience follows the actors around the venue to experience the performance)