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Sleepwalking with Lady Macbeth: The SLEEP NO MORE Experience

Somewhere deep into Sleep No More, a site-specific immersive theatrical production at The McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, I came upon the sight of a well-dressed crooner lip-syncing Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" on the stage of a dimly lit and tattered cabaret. The atmosphere was so musty, so hot, and so itchy under the plastic plague doctor masks we were all wearing, I thought I might be forced to take off my clothes or simply pass out.

At the end of the song, one made especially haunting in context of this personal mystery theater mashup of Macbeth and film noir, I made an escape through the dark space to the staircase in search of cooler air. My body vaguely remembered the location of the cold and damp room I had encountered earlier, somewhere back before the bar fight in the warehouse or that scene with the girl in the phone booth.

By then, I had abandoned any attempt to keep up with a conventional storyline from Macbeth, even after the sublime slow-motion choreography of the erotic banquet scene, in favor of improvisational explorations through this fantastical dreamscape of hotel rooms - part Hitchcock, part Kubrick, and part graphic adventure game. The mood-setting music, reminiscent of the great Bernard Hermann scores, filled every meticulously detailed space, shaping the suspense. As I made my way through a hallway of taxidermy specimens - this is the Macbeth world of nature gone awry, after all, I scared only myself as I caught a glimpse of the masked Venetian in the mirror. I eventually found the cool space I was looking for, the refreshingly clammy graveyard.

This is no ordinary experience, as you may have gathered, with no way easy to express in a conventional third person review. The immersive experience by the UK's Punchdrunk company members, with their exquisitely precise choreography and their site-specific fictional space of the hotel on W. 27th St, tricked out in such detail that I longed for a second visit, necessitates checking conventions at the door. The bearer of the ticket will be handed a card from a deck of cards, and when the number is called, perhaps after downing a quick drink at the bar, be handed a mask to wear for the duration. The Venetians of the 18th century wore masks on the streets for months, a way to protect personal identities and slip through fixed social boundaries. After a passage into darkness before the spaces unfold, the journey of some two hours duration is all your own. Sleep No More has become enough of a sensation that tickets have been hard to acquire, and the production has been held over multiple times.

Trading notes after the fact will reveal that some people experienced more or less of the production, i.e. "Darn! I missed the orgy." I can count myself among those who missed this part, but I know enough of Macbeth to understand that chasing Lady Macbeth may be somewhat important. And she was something, our Lady, washing off blood in a bathtub, or fantastically acrobatic, crawling up the walls into an antechamber and banging a glass window in panic with her arms and feet.

I remember other scenes with less precision, the kind of fragments remembered as if recalling dreams - watching dancers embraced on a dance floor from the mezzanine above along with my fellow masked participants; two women, one as the gorgeous red-headed Hecate, applying lipstick (Lady Macbeth had touched up her lips awhile earlier) and then pushing me gently aside to kiss an audience member on the lips of his mask; a nurse stepping through a window in the psychiatric ward; walking through the hospital wards and encountering a bed full of potatoes; a detective's office with file cabinets to explore; the surprise of old-fashioned desks and the written cursive word; rooms of beds of absent children; sitting on a shabby settee listening to a radio drama; playing the ill-tuned piano in the music parlor; a woman crushing drugs into a mortar in the kitchen off the dining room; and many actors from the Scottish play leaping into beds. Music filled the emotional spaces of the spoken word's absence.

Thank goodness there's a bar. At the end of the evening, you'll find it again. A wonderful jazz combo will be playing, fronted by a friendly singer of songs. Fellow players are seated and communicating with great animation around cafe tables, sipping drinks, speaking words, their masks now off and retired upon the table.

For more information, links to published reviews, and tickets to Emursive's production of Punchdrunk: Sleep No More, see the official website here. The McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street. EXTENDED.

Ben Brantley's review ("Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully") in The New York Times on April 13, 2011 is accompanied by pictures. Another NYT reviewer, Charles Isherwood, apparently missed a lot. See his "Theater Talkback: The Skittish Play" from May 19, 2011.

Image: (detail), Pietro Longhi, Il ridotto, 1790. Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands.





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