by: JK Clarke
There’s an interesting thing happening in the theater world. Immersive theater, in different variations, is emerging as a more prevalent medium. It’s not new, of course, but its popularity and the form it’s taking is intriguing. Seemingly in conjunction (or perhaps just concurrent) with the Steampunk movement (in which participants dress in Victorian or late 19th century garb, but with a technologically anachronistic bent, almost a Jules Verne-esque period science fiction), there’s now an aroused interest in historically evocative and site-specific theater, usually of the participatory variety. Witness the Speakeasy Dollhouse productions (which run the gamut from Prohibition Era speakeasy role-playing to a Players Club party that set just at the end of the Civil War, evoking noted actor Edwin Booth and his notorious brother, John Wilkes); or Sleep No More, a voyeuristic exploration—in which the audience follows characters from room to room—of the Macbeths (albeit slightly more contemporary); and then there’s last fall’s Turn of the Screw set in the Morris-Jumel Mansion historical site. The latest iteration of the first person exploration of history/literature is Serenade, an expansion of the eponymous Edgar Allan Poe poem.
Serenade is set in a building a few doorsteps away from where Poe himself once lived (a site recently demolished by its NYU landlords, though graciously preserved with a plaque). The air of mystique is created from square one: upon entering a door adjacent to a restaurant and ascending a dimly lit, rustic wood staircase, audience members are greeted by enigmatic women shrouded in white, asked to take a candle and given a “sacred” object, then led into the dining room/theater. Participants have either chosen to eat dinner or merely have drinks, which are laid out before them. Once everyone is seated, the show begins without warning: a chaotic outburst in the corner of the room as Fortunato (Mark Ryan Anderson) informs us that he is a descendant of the great Edgar Allen Poe and that he wishes for us to participate in an sacred ceremony in which the souls of Elysium (a Greek mythology version of heaven, or anti-Hades) are contacted. A disruptive soul, Lilith (Ava Lee Scott), joins the séance and calls out Fortunato on his weaknesses of character; she is his, and perhaps our personal demon. The imagery is culled directly from the Poe poem, Serenade, for which the production is named.
The main thrust of the remainder of the production are songs by both Fortunato and the various souls (from Cleopatra to Medusa to Joan of Arc) beckoned from the hereafter, as well as Lilith’s continued Fortunato-bashing. Phyto Stratis’s excellent original live music (and terrific band) are beautiful accompaniment to the songs. Though the performers’ skills are variable, there are some noteworthy performances, particularly from Anderson, a promising young actor and singer with great range and vocal strength who could certainly hold his own with top Broadway performers. And Jess Domain, as the goddess Akka, an already accomplished dancer and singer, whose lithe movement and beautiful voice are especially enchanting.
Director Ava Lee Scott (who also wrote the book and lyrics and plays Lilith) has stated that Serenade is an evolving production, which not only fits with the concept, but allows for continued changes and improvements—a welcome approach. Though the food is not necessarily a prioritized component of the production, it might be helped by change. Wine is graciously plentiful, and a cheese, bread and meat board complement it nicely. But, considering the ticket price, the main meal could use some tweaks. Notably, food should never be served on a bun in dinner theater. It just rankles.
It’s fascinating to note Serenade’s young, hip audience. This seems to signal a resurgence of the concept of dinner theater, as well as the emergence of immersive historical productions as an important entertainment form. And Serenade is a noteworthy addition to the lineup of recent productions. It makes for a lovely evening out with friends that surmounts an ordinary night in a bar or at a concert: there’s dining, theater, wine, music and history. And above all, there’s Edgar Allan Poe. What more could one ask for? Never more.
Serenade. Selected Monday evenings through August 3 at Carroll Place (157 Bleecker Street, New York, NY). www.serenadenyc.com
Photos: Alyana Rubin