Serenade Review “Regilding the Gilded Age in New York”

By Tony Perrottet

Even more thrilling was news that the theatrical spirit of the Slide refuses to die. In a startling example of history’s resilience in New York, Mr. Jordan told me that the wine bar is hosting creative tributes to Edgar Allan Poe, who lived around the corner in the West Village for two years in the 1840s, created by alumni of “Sleep No More,” the wildly successful pioneer of immersive theater staged in a warehouse in Chelsea.

And so, on the night of Jan. 19 — Poe’s birthday, as it happened — I found myself being handed a Tarot card (gratifyingly, the Emperor), then descending the stone steps that once led to the Slide’s basement brothel. The performance unfolded like an opium dream, evoking the louche artistic entertainments in upscale Gilded Age bordellos. Two priestesses in Grecian robes purified my hands before leading me to a sumptuous salon in the rafters, where I sank into a velvet armchair and was plied with red wine and Italian delicacies. A powdered M.C. in funeral garb asked us to light candles and silently confess our most secret wish, then recited Poe’s 1833 poem “Serenade.”

Seven Muses in slinky night robes sang solos — channeling Cleopatra, Endymion and Medusa — to haunting live strains of violin and cello. In between songs, the actresses drifted around the room, chatting in 19th-century character with the diners. It was hard to tell the performers from the observers: The women in the audience were dripping with vintage jewelry, and the men with creative facial hair that evoked the topiary of an English garden. A local artist beside me crafted jewelry from raven claws. An example was dangling from his own piratical beard.

After the show, I spoke with Ava Lee Scott, its writer-director, about the appeal of this fluid and interactive 19th-century performance style. “It comes down to a longing for human contact,” she said. “Today, everything is dehumanized by technology. We miss the intimacy of the Gilded Age — a handwritten letter, flowers at the door, giving a lock of hair, looking into someone’s eyes, feeling a human touch. There is a void today, and people want connections. We want storytelling and poetry in our lives.”

As I strolled through Washington Square Park, which was enveloped in a wintry silence, there was hardly a sign to betray that this was not 1890. I was carrying a wax candle that one of the performers had given me to burn the following noon to “purify my spirit.” I would have to run modern errands — dealing with health care, paying my phone bill — but the ritual would make a welcome break. A touch of Gilded Age mystery is addictive.