A thick fog encircles you as you wander through an old hotel lobby, into children’s bedrooms and gory crime scenes, along a shadowy shop-lined street, out to a cemetery, through a pine-scented wood and back inside a pool hall.
Is this a dream?
No, just a typical night out in New York City.
Well, not exactly.
About a year and a half ago, a dear friend took me to see what was being billed as an “immersive theater” production in a derelict high school in Brookline, Massachusetts. What followed was one of the most incredible evenings of performance art I have ever experienced. I was eager to see it again and tried to get tickets. No luck. The show sold out almost immediately after it opened, and tickets were offered — and snatched up, believe it or not — on Craig’s List for $1,500 apiece.
When I learned that the production would be mounted again in New York, I wasted no time ordering tickets for myself, my husband, my siblings and their significant others. This is the kind of experience that you want to share. Because, quite honestly, it is nearly impossible to describe in words.
Sleep No More is a mind-boggling mashup of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hitchcock film noir. As an audience participant, you are free to wander through a sprawling set that looks like it was designed by assemblage artist Joseph Cornell. You walk in and out of gripping — and often disturbing — scenes. The brainchild of London’s infamous Punchdrunk theater company, Sleep No More is utterly unique.From the moment you walk into “The McKittrick Hotel” (actually, three adjacent warehouse buildings near the Hudson River on 27th Street), you know that the rules have changed. Here, it’s the audience who wears masks. You’re asked not to speak, and this wouldn’t be a theatrical event without the ubiquitous request to silence your cell phone. But after that, you are a free agent. You’re welcome to touch the sets, rummage through drawers, enter or exit a scene as the mood strikes you.
There has been some conjecture in the blogosphere that Sleep No More is not really theater. I disagree. Yes, the lines between actor and audience are blurred. And no, there is not a narrative beginning, middle and end, per se. But the experience is fantastically theatrical. In fact, I would argue that Sleep No More is a theater of the senses. For a participant, all five of those senses are fully engaged.
There is more to see, hear, smell, touch and even taste than one person can possibly experience in the up to three hours you’re permitted to spend at the McKittrick. They advise you to wear comfortable shoes and, by the end of the evening, you are truly exhausted.
The space includes 93 rooms in more than 100,000 square feet. Not all the rooms are open at all times, and it is absolutely possible, if not probable, that you will miss many of them. But that’s all right. In any given room there is enough detail to keep you occupied — from taxidermic animals, glass eyes and antique medical equipment, to dismembered baby dolls, countless books and journals, feathers, laundry, church statuary and … penny candy.
If you’re familiar with the source material, you will recognize certain scenes and characters. But don’t expect the expected. You may catch an enormously pregnant Lady MacDuff, for example, being served by a sinister Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Duncan’s son appears to have evolved into a 1940s detective. Naked witches, with tattoos and shaven heads, sacrifice a newborn. A bloodied Banquo makes his haunting appearance at a backlit slow motion banquet. And in several scenes, the tension between Macbeth and his Lady merges violence and sex to a degree that you feel guilty watching.
I couldn’t give it all away if I tried, because after attending two separate performances, I’m certain that I have only scratched the surface
Sleep No More is directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, who also serves as choreographer. The program (which you receive as you leave the show) lists hundreds of set builders, stewards and volunteers, in addition to thirty or so cast members. The performers themselves are extraordinary. Although there is no dialogue, they use their lean dancer’s bodies to express the rage, horror, lust for power, and just plain lust inherent in Shakespeare’s tragedy. The choreography blends pedestrian movement with grand shifts in weight and balance, as the dancers literally climb the walls in scene after scene.
Sleep No More is not for everyone. Unlike most theater, it’s a self-directed experience — explore what you like when you like. But you may feel as if you’ve lost control. Even among hundreds of other masked participants, you are very much alone. (A word of warning — the cast may try to separate you from your friends and family. Just try finding a familiar face in a sea of Venetian masks.) There is a palpable sense of fear mingled with a childlike sense of wonder. Probably not the best choice of an evening’s entertainment if you suffer from anxiety. But if you’re willing to open yourself and go with the flow, you will discover new ways to look at storytelling, dance, drama, and perhaps even some insights about yourself. Much as Macbeth is haunted by his own actions, you will be haunted by the images you absorb. (More than one member of my family group has complained about post-performance insomnia.)
Go together and plan to enjoy a nightcap somewhere afterwards while you compare notes. According to a person involved with the show, the average audience member only sees about 1/16 of the total event. Whether you sleep well that night or not, your experience at Sleep No More will be yours and yours alone.