Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Methought I heard a voice cry

This past Saturday, the ladies and I went with some friends to see Sleep No More in Chelsea.

Following are two reviews, one of which is completely spoiler-free. The other has "format spoilers", but no serious plot spoilers--a concept that only vaguely applies to this show anyway.

Spoiler-free review: If you're at all able to do so, and enjoy things that range from "weird" to "damn that's fucked up", see it.

That's about all that can be said. If you want to go in completely cold, that's all you get.

Format-spoilers review: Sleep No More is an immersive theater production performed in "The McKittrick Hotel", a hundred-room performance space installed in the five floors of three adjoining warehouses. Audience members come in off the street, check in at the front desk, and are pointed down a dark, winding hall (I had to navigate by touch) which opens into a smoky, dreamlike 1940s lounge. In small groups, they're allowed into a tiny vestibule where they're given white masks, told a short list of Hotel rules, and herded into an elevator which discharges them in randomly selected groups onto random floors. It's recommended that you experience the show solo, and parts of it are designed to break up groups. The stagehands wear black masks--except those disguised as audience members--and the actors alone are unmasked. There is no photography allowed, no removing of masks, and absolutely no talking.

As an audience member, you're free to go anywhere you please and to touch everything. The actors use the audience-filled rooms as sets, and simply ignore or push through spectators--there are no designated performing areas and viewing areas. In my three hours there, I was moved exactly once, and that was because I was seconds away from being kicked in the face by a performer vaulting over the speakeasy bar I'd wandered behind. The masks are a brilliant touch; they make the scenes even more bizarre and dreamlike, and act as a barrier, simultaneously making you feel more removed from the action and bolder: with my shy temperament, I would never have explored behind the bar with my face out.

The primary story is based on Macbeth--or at least a 1940s inspired fever dream of Macbeth--with significant extra material inferred to be happening offstage in Shakespeare's play, plus characters and events inspired by Hitchcock movies and historical Scottish witch hunts, all performed (mostly) wordlessly. The story repeats three times, resetting on the hours, so that an audience member has more opportunities to see different scenes. At the end of the third performance, the black masked stagehands silently herd the entire audience into the grand ballroom for the finale.

With so many scenes going on at once, and so many rooms to poke around in, it's impossible to see everything. I spent the first hour and a half just exploring the set, and the remaining hour and a half hunting for scenes, and still managed to completely miss Hecate's lounge, a uniquely strange room where at least one significant scene takes place.

The set itself is glorious and intimidatingly spacious. The grand ballroom doubles as Birnam Wood, complete with wheeled trees that are moved on and off (or pressed ominously inward) as scenes demand. Most of the fifth floor is a nightmare of a mental asylum. The battlefield ruins, graveyard, and witches' forest are all kept cool and humid, with their matte black walls lost in the perfectly designed lighting, so that most of the time you honestly feel like you've stepped outside, or are dreaming about having stepped outside. In many places they've hauled in dirt for the floors or even paved the floors to complete the illusion. The Hotel level has the Macduffs' apartments, a restaurant, and a coat check, and old fashioned pay phone niches in the lobby that ring randomly and give little details to whoever picks them up. The Macduff children's room has big mirrors on one wall made of one-way glass. Cup your hands to them, and you see through into another room furnished exactly the same way, but with the bedclothes torn away and a large bloodstain on the mattress.

And the depth of the set goes well beyond "you can touch it". Among the extremely strange detail that's just there to set the atmosphere, there's also a seemingly endless amount of detail that informs and builds on the story. One floor (dominated by Hitchcock themes) centers on a simulated grimy street with "storefronts" that can be freely entered and explored. One of these is some kind of police or private investigator's office, with one wall covered in cubbies of evidence and one covered in filing cabinets piled high with loose files on top. Tucked in a corner on top of the filing cabinets is a safe. If you open that safe, it's full of feathers, nests, and eggs, but there's also a stack of envelopes on the top shelf. Stand on your toes, take an envelope, and open it... And you find a handwritten letter in fountain pen from the Thane of Glamis approving a request to go birdwatching on his lands, but warning the petitioner to stay away from the hut in the woods and to "be sure not to try our generosity". Details like this are everywhere, in drawers, chest, jewelry boxes--or fitted into hollowed-out Bibles--and usually have little to do with any of the performed story lines; they're just there to give extraordinary depth to a set and production that everyone involved obviously put a huge amount of work into.

The second floor houses the lounge that you entered through, and it remains accessible throughout. There's (quite good) live forties-style music, a bar, and a masks-optional and discussion-allowed policy that lets you to take a break from the show if you want to. In the first hour, some of the sets (most notably the graveyard, the ruins, and the entire asylum level) were unnerving enough that I rushed through them, and the lounge was a nice respite. By the third hour, I felt at home in every part of the performance space, and was ill at ease stepping into the lounge. If you want to feel how easily people get lost in Carcosa, this is an educational experience.

The performances themselves are done in a mix of pantomime and modern dance, which seems like it could get tedious after a while... and it sometimes does. But it only gets tedious when the performers involved want you to move along and see something else. You're only actually told to go to a certain place at the finale, but throughout the show the performers expertly use pacing and your own sense of urgency to keep you moving. The "vocabulary" of the performance is matched perfectly to the needs and feel of the show, and I say that as somebody who usually dislikes modern dance. The performers, incidentally, are impossibly good at what they do, timing their performances, entrances, and exits using only the phonographey forties soundtrack that plays throughout the set to guide them, and doing some seriously impressive near-acrobatic performances using the set itself. Even more impressive, most of the performers know multiple roles, and they often switch for a given performance.

To see the plot play out, many people follow the actors from scene to scene. And the actors don't wait for them. When Macbeth runs furiously up a flight of stairs and through the halls of the asylum and the and mazelike woods to confront the witches, the fifty or so people following him had just better keep up. By the third performance, most people have started following performers, so that wherever you go you find claustrophobic crushes of spectators, madly rushing mobs, or nearly empty rooms. The maze of rooms is equipped with hidden, lockable doors and concealed bolt holes that the performers use to slip away from the following crowds, leaving them to disperse in confusion.

The performers mostly ignore the audience. They'll move people in their way, and will occasionally interact for specific reasons (dancers in the ballroom scene that resets the show will pull in partners from the crowd, and a grieving Macduff implores the audience to hold up his dead wife, for example), but for the most part they give the impression that they're living in a world of shades that they're dimly aware of but are uninterested in. Once in a while, a performer will pull a single person out of the audience, take him into a locked room reserved for the purpose, and play out a one-on-one scene. There's a consensus on the Internet that there's even an entire sixth floor kept secret, that's seen by only a few audience members per performance.

Hecate alone, who stays almost exclusively in her lounge, makes it clear that she's always conscious of the audience, freely interacting with them and sending some of them on errands.

You can see the show in your own way, exploring the set or following the performances or both (it may be best to follow the actors earlier rather than later, as everybody gets this idea towards the end). You can find a comfortable or significant room and hang out there for a while, watching the scenes that come and go. In the speakeasy on the fourth floor, you can play a bizarre card game that involves nailing the face cards to the wall.

Seven of us went, three of whom had been there before, and even after comparing all our notes, I'm certain we have much, much more to see. When together, we've talked about little else since.

Sleep No More was intended to run for six weeks, but has now been extended four times. It runs every day except Sunday, with an additional late performance on Friday and Saturday,* and I believe they have a full house for every show. If you can scrounge up the ninety bucks and a trip to the City, and have a tolerance for the weird (and some moments--particularly in Hecate's lounge--are really, really weird), see this show. It isn't the kind of thing that can go on tour after its Manhattan run. See it while you have the chance.

[* - The five "arrival times" you can buy tickets for are all for the same show, which ends at the finale regardless of when you arrived. Get the earliest one you can, because even the full three hours won't be anywhere near enough time.]


  1. I want to live there for several weeks; although I'm not sure _that_ would be enough time!

    Let's go back!!

  2. Seriously. I just want to pitch a tent in the forest and live there for the rest of the run. Is that too much to ask?

  3. Only one thing to do, ladies: become fabulously wealthy, and buy premium access passes to the rest of the run.

  4. I mean this truly: if you're tempted, do it. Do it, do it, do it.

    If the idea sounds good to you, you will positively not be disappointed; it's executed as perfectly as it's possible to execute it.

    The only reason I could see anybody being disappointed with this show is if they really, really dislike crowds or modern dance (and _I_ really dislike crowds and modern dance), or if they have a low tolerance for the weird or sexy (our post-show discussion may have involved the phrase "dick blood").

    Otherwise, if you can afford to part with ninety dollars each, you'll definitely value the experience higher than the money.

  5. I wish I could. The sprog is due in 3 weeks, and the nursery is half-primed...

  6. Ah, fair enough. Amazing show is amazing, but life doesn't wait on art. ;)