June 18, 2011

How "Sleep No More" Gave Me Nightmares

Forget about War Horse or even The Book of Mormon. The hottest ticket in town 
is Sleep No More. That’s the Macbeth
takeoff in which theatergoers put on white-face masks and roam around a huge, 100,000-square-foot warehouse space in Chelsea. 

The British company Punchdrunk, which specializes in this style of "immersive theater," has outfitted the place with all kinds of weird paraphernalia. Actors appear seemingly out of nowhere to perform scenes and then disappear again. The show has the show-offy split personality of a James Franco: it's part theater, part art installation, part spook house.

The Drama Desk gave it a special award for being a “Unique Theatrical Experience.”  It won special Obie and ITBA citations too.  It also tops the leader board on StageGrade, the website that aggregates and scores the reviews of the top New York theater critics. 

And people are lining up to see Sleep No More—including celebrities.  Franco, Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Damon, Justin Timberlake, Tyra Banks, Joan Rivers, a pre-baby Natalie Portman and the Olsen twins have all reportedly hidden behind one of those white masks to see the show and, in some cases, have tweeted enthusiastically about it.  

Even the usually grouchy New York Post columnist Michael Riedel is smitten (click here to read his love letter to the show).  So, I’ve been trying to figure out why Sleep No More didn’t work for me. Although I’m not the only naysayer; click here to read about the New York Times critic Charles Isherwood’s experience with the show.

It could just be that neither Isherwood nor I is cool enough for Sleep No More. “You should check your bag,” the smiling coat check guy said to me as I walked into the warehouse space, which has been rechristened the McKittrick Hotel, an homage to the hotel in the Hitchcock movie “Vertigo,” the inspiration for the production's creepy film noir sensibility.   

“No thank you,” I said, just as pleasantly as I held on to my small purse. 

“It’s better to leave it here,” he said, a little less friendly.  “You’ll enjoy the show more.”   

I said I would keep it anyway.   

“You should trust me,” he said, now not that friendly at all.  

 “I’m keeping it,” I said, not at all pleasantly.

My stepdaughter Anika, my bag and I then made our way up some stairs and through the pitch black passageway that leads to a bar, where you can buy a drink while you wait for a guide to give out the masks (they look like the scary commedia dell'arte ones that Tom Cruise wore in the 1999 Stanley Kubric film “Eyes Wide Shut”). Then the guide ushers you onto an elevator that delivers you to a floor where you can begin your adventure.

There are five floors to wander around and you can go wherever you want to go whenever you want. One of the things that people seem to like most about Sleep No More is the fact that no two people see the same show. And, for those making return visits to see the things they missed the first time around, no person sees the same show twice. It’s a theatrical experience that fits right in with the current obsession for DIY culture.

You can either chase behind a performer as he or she flits from space to space or amble about on your own. Audience members are encouraged to riffle through the draws and closets in the rooms, read the letters lying on the table in the library, the folders in the file cabinet of a detective agency and the labels on the bottles in the apothecary.

But that kind of information foraging isn’t easy to do if you need eyeglasses the way I do.  Your glasses can’t fit over the mask, which you’re told you should not take off. Nor do glasses actually fit under the mask. Anika helpfully pointed out a few things to me but she couldn’t say much because you’re not supposed to talk either and black-masked guards are around to shush those who disobey.

I usually like surprises and serendipity. But I like them to add up to something.  The last time I had a theatrical adventure like this one was back in 1987 when I saw Tamara, a murder mystery that played out in the Park Avenue Armory. You followed the actors around, listened for clues and tried to figure out whodunit. You also got free champagne to drink and, if memory serves, food from Le Cirque to eat. 

There was no equivalent logical progression (or free vittles) at Sleep No More and that frustrated the narrative nerd in me.  When Anika and I spotted a woman desperately wringing her hands, we guessed that she was probably Lady Macbeth. But the actress (we knew she was in the show because she didn’t have a mask) never said a word and eventually just went off down a dark corridor. 

The male actors who engaged in a combative dance routine—were they Macduff and Macbeth duking it out?—were just as silent. In fact, the entire performance is dialog-free. Anika and I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on and eventually stopped trying. 

Instead, we resignedly made our away through as many dimly-lit rooms (there are said to be 100) as we could, including the infirmary, the graveyard, a forest in which effigies of headless babies hung from trees, and some offices, bedrooms and sitting rooms.  I vetoed the morgue.

Sometimes we saw actors (both dressed and not) but usually we didn’t. Throughout it all, ominous Bernard Herrmannesque music played in the background. The whole thing is supposed to evoke a dream, in which scenes and even people morph into one another and meaning is elusive.  

I got that.  But I got tired of it too.  Although I might have had a better time if I’d gotten a guided tour like the one that Kurt Andersen got for his public radio show Studio 360 and which you can listen to by clicking here.

Audience members can stay pretty much as long as they like but Anika and I left after an hour and a half and walked across the street to a little place called Ovest Pizzoteca where we had a nice little dinner and a more pleasurable time

The play followed me home though. For several nights afterward, my dreams were filled with images from it.  So I guess you’d have to say it was effective in that way at least.  But the biggest advantage of having seen Sleep No More, which has twice extended its run and is now scheduled to play through Labor Day, may be, as Anika says, that you can say that you saw it. 


RobertP said...

Hadn't heard of Sleep No More until your posting. Though you didn't love it, your review intrigued me enough to get tickets. I'll let you know if it gives me nightmares. ;-)

jan@broadwayandme said...

RobertP, I'm delighted that my post has piqued your interest and I'd really love to hear what you think of the show so please come back and leave a comment after you've seen it.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is you TOTALLY missed out. This show is best for those open to experiencing it.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Well, despite the purse thing with the coat check guy, I actually did try to be open but the show just didn't work for me. Still, it sounds like you enjoyed it and that's a good thing. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment telling me so.

Unree said...

I totally agree with you and Isherwood in the NYT. The best part of the evening for me was taking refuge in the bar, where a $15 martini was generously poured. I missed the vaunted nudity and suspense, and all the acting I saw was dull and opaque.

Greene said...

Attending "Sleep No More" was to have been the highlight of one of my recent theatre binges in the city. I spoke with several that had seen it and I was completely psyched and ready for anything...anything that is except what a terrific letdown it was.

After two frustrating hours of wandering about, chasing after actors, and rummaging through desks and such, I called it a night and left. I know everybody has a different experience, but for me NOTHING HAPPENED. I even studied MacBeth in preparation. Didn't help in the slightest.

I guess I just need to have some kind of narrative thread (of which there was none) when I attend theatre. On the whole I found it to be an overrated, pretentious bore.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Unree and Green, I wish you guys had had better times at the show than I did. But I thank you for leaving your thoughts about it because I think they'll help reassure other folks who may be feeling as though they were the only ones who "didn't get it."

RobertP said...

Finally saw it and I have to say that I found it to be fantastic. The sets were amazing but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the actors. I think I must have stumbled on to most of the action because I saw a lot. I thought the slow-motion banquet sequence was the absolute highlight. Sexy and frightening, incredibly lit. Going again latenight Saturday. LOVED IT.

jan@broadwayandme said...

RobertP, I'm glad you had such a great time (wish I'd gone with you!). The great thing about theater in general—and this show in particular—is that each performance is unique and so is each person's experience of it. Hope yours is as rewarding on the second visit.