This week I saw a play that wasn’t really a play. Actually, “saw” isn’t really the right verb. More like “experienced” or even “participated in”. The play was Sleep No More, a immersive, noir twist on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The production takes place in an abandoned 1940’s era hotel in Chelsea, the McKittrick Hotel. Punchdruck Productions has taken over the place and turned it into a somber, creepy, multi-story setting for their “play”.
Here’s how it works. You sign up for an entry time (the production runs continuously for several hours) and are ushered into a nearly pitch dark lobby where you are quickly stripped of your belongings and sense of security. Up the stairs, again in the dark, navigating only by the meager light of a few candles, you finally find your way into a 1930’s style bar. A few expensive drinks later and you’re handed an almost skeletal white mask, a la Eyes Wide Shut, and trundled into a creaky elevator. Just when you start to feel like you know what to expect, the elevator operator stops suddenly and shoves the poor fool closest to the door out, leaving him alone and separated from his party. You get to the top, are instructed to never remove your mask or speak, and abandoned in the dusty, slightly smoky, hallways of the McKittrick.
At that point, you are free to wander and explore the hotel, encouraged to touch, pick up, and read anything you please (the place is lovingly and fabulously set, replete with photos, bricabrak, dead birds splayed open for dissection, a thousand playing cards, all Queens, pinned to the wall, police reports, love letters, headless baby dolls hanging from the ceiling, and pretty much every other thing you can imagine). These props are ostensibly supposed to relate to plot, but to me seemed more keyed into mood and world-building. In fact, creating a wholly real-feeling word is where Sleep No More knocks it out of the park.
Just when you’re starting to feel comfortable(-ish), an unmasked actor appears – usually with a crowd of creepily masked spectators in tow. You can follow these actors around and watch them, getting close enough to breathe on the backs of their neck if you like. If you aren’t careful, though, they might reach out and touch you. The scenes you bear witness to rapidly become disturbing. Sleep No More is essentially a series of vignettes featuring sex and violence – and often both at once. There is full frontal nudity, Bacchnalian orgies, murder, poisoning (most horrifically of a pregnant woman who appears to welcome it), arguments and fights (all done almost in mime), a remarkably realistic hanging, and tons of sex. You watch it all like a voyeur, standing in the dim, smoky rooms of the hotel just inches from the action in your faceless, anonymous mask. It feels totally real and completely unreal all at the same time.
Having the audience wear those masks was very, very clever. What a wonderful way to add a spooky detached feeling to the proceedings, and to un-moor each viewer from their own sense of identity. Without the masks, I doubt any of the rest of it would have worked very well.
Since audience members are admitted in small, timed groups, and you’re free to wander as you will, no one will see the same “play” or have the same experience. We went with several friends, from whom we were almost immediately separated (it’s impossible to tell who’s who in those masks), and when we regrouped at the end we found they had witnessed many things we hadn’t, and vice versa.
Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the thing in terms of plot and story. As you move through the play, you’re seeing only snippets, feeling at the edges of what seems like a larger story. Why was that woman hiding that photograph? Why does that pregnant woman seem so eager to drink poison? The bald naked woman who cut a baby out of another actor during the Bacchnalian orgy keeps showing up, and sometimes dressed and wearing a wig — who is she? But the more you travel through the hotel and think about what you’re seeing, the clearer it becomes that nothing makes sense, that sex and violence are the story, that you’re meant to be tantalized and titillated, to wonder, to look for connections to the Macbeth story (which are about as loose as Oh Brother Where Art Thou is to the Odyssey), but not to find them. Or to all find different connections, to come away with your own interpretation of what happened.
In this sense, Sleep No More is the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure story.
When you emerge, blinking, back into the bar at the end, you feel as if you’ve woken from a very strange dream. You realize you have fake blood in your hair, and that the rather normal looking actors standing at the bar were, just an hour ago, simulating sex in a blood-filled bathtub.
Should you be ashamed at what you’ve seen, at what you’ve implicitly participated in? Is it wrong that instead you feel oddly contented? You aren’t sure. You have another drink.
You tell your friends to go see Sleep No More.