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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sleep No More

I walked carefully through the faux graveyard inside a warehouse on a dark street in Chelsea, my face hidden by my mask. French doors led me into a bedroom with a large bathtub in the center, a bed in the corner. In another corner stood a desk and several chests of drawers. Opening the drawers, I found letters signed by Macbeth, the paper wrinkled and spotted with blood. Knotted rags were stuffed inside another drawer.

Suddenly, a man entered the room. He was soon joined by a woman who stripped down to her underwear, donned a negligee and proceeded to enter into a sort of acrobatic, sexualized dance with the man.
What the hell was this, and how did I get here?

Back in May, when I was reading up on the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met, I saw this sentence in a New Yorker article:

Even if you never bother with fashion shows, go to this one. It has more in common with “Sleep No More,” the “immersive” performance of “Macbeth” currently playing in Chelsea, than it does with a conventional display of couture in a gallery, tent, or shop window.

"Sleep No More?" I wondered. "What's that? Sounds cool!"

I Googled the title and was intrigued by what I read. It seemed to be a kind of interactive theater, a unique performance set in a multi-floor "hotel." After checking in, the audience members don masks and wander through a tableau of scenes inspired by Macbeth and other sources. Two friends said "no thanks" to joining me, but Kurt was as curious as I was. My colleague Noelle agreed to come along, and we purchased tickets in mid-June for an early August performance. (Originally scheduled to end in mid-summer, the show has been consistently sold-out, so its run was extended.)

Two performances are offered on weekend nights. To make it even more of an adventure, we opted for the late show, which meant an 11:30 arrival time. The performance would end around 2 a.m. Wandering around a warehouse/hotel wearing a mask at 2 a.m.? What's not to like about that! I sucked down an iced coffee around 7, and we fueled up on basque tapas and sangria at Txikito to kill time before the show.

Two couples carrying masks sat down at the table next to us around 10. "Did you guys just come from Sleep No More?" I asked. "How was it?"

"Did you get any blood on you?" inquired Noelle, whose neighbor had warned her to wear flat shoes and clothing that could take a little spattering. She'd started to wish she'd done a little more research before agreeing to a $90 ticket.

It was cool, they said. Don't stay in one spot too long. Be sure to wander around the whole place and take in all the floors.

After "checking into" the McKittrick Hotel, we waited in a cocktail lounge as groups were moved into the performance space. In a small room, a woman in an evening gown told us to don our masks and keep them on during the entire performance. She instructed us not to talk. If we needed assistance, stewards wearing black masks were available to guide us. A costumed elevator operator dropped us off on various floors, encouraging us to wander and explore on our own, rather than staying with our group.

At first, it felt as creepy as a haunted house. I hesitated to leave Kurt and Noelle. But I pushed myself to wander upstairs on my own. A psychiatric ward on the top floor was lined with empty beds and patient charts. A room with a padded cell was covered with feathers. I watched a woman lie down on a bed in a hotel room; as she drifted off to sleep, a man entered through a wardrobe and covered her with a blanket. After a while, she too passed through the wardrobe, which led to a tailor's shop. She and the tailor danced with a bolt of cloth. A man came into the tailor's office wearing a lab coat with a ripped sleeve that needed to be repaired. Did he have something to do with the medical office upstairs? The woman stole money from the tailor and stuffed it in her purse.

Does it sound a bit like a dream?  That's how the Boston Hearald described it: "Unlike any theatrical experience you've ever wandering through a dream someone else is having."

The "someone else" part is key -- our own dreams are hard enough to understand. This really did feel like being in someone else's dream, where you're clueless about the symbols, the connections between characters. Why was there a nursery with headless baby dolls hanging over a crib? What was up with all of the eggs? What was the purpose of the candy shop, other than giving me a chance to fill my cheeks with lemon jawbreakers and bubble gum?

Helping myself to candy, watching intimate moments between couples, poking through closets and doors -- no wonder the New York Times reviewer wrote, “'Sleep No More' is, in short, a voyeur’s delight, with all the creepy, shameful pleasures that entails." Your mask gives you the anonymity to linger and stare until you've seen all you want to take in or the characters leave. You try to follow them, or you wander off to experience something else. And what there is to experience: as the same review put it, "These jaded figures can be found in bedrooms, bathrooms, ballrooms, hospital rooms and nurseries getting dressed and undressed, doing the foxtrot, making every kind of love, killing one another and washing off blood."
The most unsettling part for me was the futility of trying to piece it all together. It's simply impossible to ensure you're in the right place at the right time to watch the action unfold. The experience is structured so that there is no right place and right time...each person's experience is meant to be entirely unique. An Entertainment Weekly review noted it's not unlike a video game in which you choose your own adventure.

Toward the end, it became clear these dots were not going to be connected in any cohesive fashion, and I started to feel frustrated. For this "Type A" personality, that was hard to swallow. Where was the code? Tell me the answers! How can I make sense out of something that doesn't make sense? Frankly, I think that was good for me. I need to be more comfortable with non-linear narratives. But even though I knew I needed to embrace the ambiguity, it still made me a little crazy.

In a way, the performance is a fitting metaphor for life: we all take a unique path through various places, scenes and experiences. Some of us view the same thing and have completely different interpretations, based on what we've seen or experienced before and after. A few audience members were lucky enough to be pulled aside by a cast member, taken into a room or a closet for a whispered clue. Others, like me, felt unlucky, lost, clueless and confused. The space was enormous, more than 100 rooms, with incredible details and tantalizing props. But at times, the rooms where the really good scenes were happening became too crowded to see anything. I'd try to follow a character but would get stuck behind a clump of slow-moving audience members, and the character would vanish.

Afraid of "spoilers," I made a point of not reading too much about the show before I went. Frankly, I wish I'd read everything out there. This morning I read at least ten reviews, and I'm telling you so much about what I saw here because there's really no way to spoil this show. As Kurt, Noelle and I compared notes at the end, the conversation went something like this:

"Did you see the birth scene?"

"What birth scene? I don't think I even saw that pregnant lady until the banquet scene at the end."

"What about the scene when Lady Macbeth washes Macbeth in the bathtub?"

"Oh, is that how you got that blood smear on your arm?"

"Could you see into that hut in the forest? What was going on in there?"

"I saw some guy get pulled in there by one of the witches!"

"Witches? What witches?"

"The three witches! Like in Macbeth! Oops, is this still considered inside the theater? I mean 'The Scottish Play.'"

"Did you gals see any pickles? I saw two!"

"No, but I think Lady Macbeth had the smallest boobies I've ever seen."

As I retrieved the purse from my coat check, the attendant couldn't help overhearing our confusion -- and everyone else's. "Okay, I'm not supposed to tell you this," she whispered. "But if you want to understand it, you have to watch four pieces: Hitchcock's Vertigo and Rebecca, Rosemary's Baby, and 'The Scottish Play.'"

We snapped a photo in our masks and found Noelle a taxi. Walking home in the warm summer night, Kurt and I agreed the experience had echoes of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut or a David Lynch film like Mulholland Drive -- both of which also left me scratching my head and trying to make sense of what I'd seen. (Into this bucket I'd also add Magnolia.) It was a little bit like a theatrical version of the TV show Lost: you hang in there thinking it will all make sense in the end...but the ending feels as ambiguous as the middle did.

Perhaps my favorite summary came from Vice Magazine in a review entitled "This Sleep No More Thing is Fucked": "From what I understand, there are elements of Macbeth scattered throughout the play, but the whole thing just seemed like a bad acid trip to me—and I mean that in the best possible way."

Kurt and I donned our masks for the last few blocks home. You can definitely expect those to make a repeat performance!

* * *
If you'd like to read more...the New York Post article was my favorite.

Here's the summary from the New Yorker:
Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and the shadowy, mannered, and morally terrible world that Alfred Hitchcock created as a young filmmaker in pre-Second World War Britain provide some of the inspiration for this Punchdrunk production, in collaboration with Emursive, at the McKittrick Hotel. The show’s co-directors, Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, have created a work that isn’t so much a montage as a series of separate images, some of them powerful, some not. Audience members are given masks to wear, and led up an elevator to rooms in which they see various characters, based on those from “Macbeth,” engaged in silent physical exchanges. The performers’ movements—at times delicate and slow, at times fast and agitated—help bring out the tension. The music further confuses us as it insinuates itself throughout this self-consciously “beautiful” work, which teeters on the edge of making us sick—by inducing a kind of emotional vertigo—before hiding behind its captivating, hard finish.

From New York Magazine: What in Hecate’s name is Sleep No More? A dance-theater horror show? A wordless, nonlinear mash-up of Macbeth and the darker psychosexual corners of Hitchcock? A six-story Jazz Age haunted house for grown-ups and anyone who’s ever entertained sick cineast-y fantasies of living inside a Kubrick movie?


Page said...

Wonderful review of what sounds like an unforgettable experience. As an unabashed voyeur, I think I'd like it, but also be disturbed by it. I'm kinda disturbed just by your review.

Dee Stephens said...

Shenanigans!!!! Sorta like - Eyes Wide Shut! LOL!

Mandy said...

Macbeth is a really scary play to read when you consider all the murdering, witchcraft, and night terrors. (And let's not forget the horses eating each other and Lady Macbeth swearing she'd bash her baby's brains!) I'm not sure I'd want to go to anything "interactive" about that play, but I'm glad you did so I could read about it. :)