“Serenade” At Carroll Place (Closed August 3, 2015)

March 6, 2015 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Music by Phytos Stratis
Book and Lyrics by Ava Lee Scott
Directed by Ava Lee Scott
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limited

My, the immersive theatre has come a long way. From its ‘haunted house’ origins, this creepy interactive genre spawned such cult classic as”Sleep No More” and its spooky successor “Then She Fell.” Writer/Director Ava Lee Scott has nudged the form further with ‘Serenade’ a haunting, Gothic musical inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

The audience begins the show in the home of Fortunato, a wealthy young man hell-bent on conducting a séance to contact the late Mr. Poe; he found a love letter to his mother written by the late poet, and now believes himself to Mr. Poe’s last descent. Led into an eerie dining hall with food and a few troubadours, the audience fully takes part in Fortunato’s ghostly ritual, in which he attempts to summon Poe and prove his heritage.

But gasps! Shrieks! Startles! The ritual goes a bit haywire. The ghosts of several famous women, both historical and mythological, emerge from the beyond. They seek to heal their tortured spirits, all the while entreating Fortunato, his family, and guests (i.e. you) to an enrapturing array of song, dance, and spoken word. Like “13 Ghosts” with beautiful people.

Creator Ava Lee Scott is exceedingly inventive; she’s taken the things most bothersome about immersive theatre and banished them from her work. First off, Serenade is a mostly seated affair. Although the revelry allows for some measure of frolicking, you can relax, sip your wine and still get the full force of the show. Second, while in other immersive fare actors only ordain a chosen few with interaction, the intimacy of the space means it’s hard not to get a little theatrical one-on-one, for better or for worse. Fortunato takes it upon himself to greet each audience member personally, toast with them, and fully gain their confidence before the ritual is joined. Depending on the performer’s whimsy, you may end up browbeaten by Lilith, discussing your crush with Cleopatra, or whispering about faith to Joan of Arc. And did I mention the delicious (and complimentary) food and drink?

Those hoping to hear the purring of “The Black Cat,” the thumping of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Raven’s” cries ‘Nevermore’ will find the engagement a bit Poe-poor. Indeed, the show is rather lacking when it comes to the source material. That said, the world of the play is one in which Poe’s stories and poems are just that, so to have them come to life wouldn’t make sense in context. Still, couldn’t Scott have sprung for just one killer orangutan?

The play’s Poe-inspired poetics make peculiar lyrics, but the ingenious composition of Musical Director Phytos Stratis weaves them effortlessly into his bewitching score. An enchanting musical mélange, the operatic numbers bathe the world of the play in gothic reverberations without ever taking a turn towards the repetitive. Stratis even leaves his keyboard to dance with the audience on occasion, ensuring the guests are as at home with the music as they are with the performers.

As immersive theatre continues its well-deserved surge on the New York scene, this fantastic phantasmal work is a unique and masterful evolution of the form. Haunting and jovial, nightmarish and intimate, you’d be hard pressed to find a more personal piece of magic than “Serenade.”