We spent a whirlwind less-than-24-hours in New York during our East Coast trip over the holidays, setting aside the evening for Sleep No More. It was an amazing show. I feel for it the way I must have felt the very first time I saw Cirque du Soleil (Saltimbanco, ’93), it was that different.
For days afterward, Bill and I couldn’t not talk about the show, knowing full well that telling other people about the show is kind of bad. The basics are: It’s a retelling of Macbeth set in a very film noir 1940s – so it’s a very loose, abstract retelling of Macbeth. (I think if you walk in knowing vaguely about witch prophecies and people killing people you’ll be fine.) It’s a production that’s a full-on, interactive experience, so no two people see, hear, or do the same things as the other. Punchdrunk Emursive took over a five-story office building in the Meatpacking District and converted it into the “McKittrick Hotel,” where you don’t buy tickets, you make reservations, and every room is open to your curiosity. You roam at your own pace, meaning you can check out the ballroom, put your head in the tub on the deserted hospital floor, or roll open a drawer in the taxidermist’s office, coming and going as you please. You can follow the actor-dancers throughout the hotel. You can also not follow the actor-dancers throughout the hotel. Not a word is to be spoken between you and the rest of the masked audience (and they’re plastic Italian drama masks – super creepy, so Hell yes we kept ours), though the actor-dancers might utter a sentence or two throughout their entire two-ish hour show. (The most I heard was Lady Macbeth yelling “Are you a man?” at Macbeth.)
Like I alluded to before, every person’s experience is unique. I’ve since heard of friends who have experienced Sleep No More four or five times just to gain more perspectives and come away with more stories. One person had a one-on-one interaction with an actor involving jelly beans injected with black liquid. Bill watched an acrobatic duet with only five other audience members.
Me? I went to the satanic rave orgy twice because I thought it was a good party. (And I saw not one, but two! naked men.)
I could tell more, but therein lies the conflict about talking about Sleep No More. If you are successful in getting another friend to attend the show, you may do them the injustice of not allowing them to determine their own dramatic destiny. Multiple people told us just enough to get me excited before I started plugging my ears going “Stop telling me! I want to find out for myself!” So instead of overtelling you about the show, I will tell you just one bit about my version of the finale.
Bill and I immediately took different routes (the best way to go!) when we were released into the McKittrick Hotel, and only ended up running into each other momentarily twice throughout the night. By the time the big, monumental finale rolled around, I was by myself again. I was watching a banquet with the characters from the balcony above as things got intense. Keep in mind that there was essentially no dialogue among this dozen of people, so their live action slow motion toasting, nonverbal accusations, and silhouettes against carefully timed lighting were all especially pronounced. We must have been halfway through the banquet when I just needed a break from all the building tension. Curious to see who else was watching from the balcony, I looked at the masked audience peers to my right and to my left, not realizing until that moment that I had been standing next to one of the actors the entire time. She was still in character, looking straight ahead at the banquet, so I looked back at the banquet, too.
As the lighting darkened from yellow to orange to red, I felt a hand stretch over my shoulders. I looked to the source and it wasn’t Bill. It was the actress next to me. All day long leading up to the show, I was joking with Bill about how I’d have to put up a fuss and say “I don’t like being touched!” in case any actors tried to get me to interact. Now that it had actually happened, I didn’t have the balls to speak – or maybe I did, but they just got lodged in my throat. She continued to hold me in her arms, taking my hand and watching the banquet as I watched the banquet and panicked in my head over what to do next. “Am I supposed to hold her back? Do I push her away? Am I sweating profusely? Through my palms?”
And then shit got real. The climax of most interpretations of Shakespeare’s story is that Macbeth is hanged (not hung!) by his friends. As his chair came out, the actress started rubbing my shoulders and back in a really creepy massage. Now the “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!” thoughts were really racing through my head, with rushings of “WHEN DOES IT END?” It’s not like I’d been to an execution before. I didn’t know what the protocol was with these things. Hug the actress? Discuss the hanging? I was flabbergasted, until…
Lights blacked out. End of scene. End of show.
As everyone in the audience seemed to be rising out of a drama-induced stupor, the actress hooked me by the arm and drew me out of the room. I didn’t have much time to process, and I seriously thought she might take me to some demonic afterparty and oh my gosh how would I communicate with Bill. She escorted me through the stairwell, through hallways I hadn’t even seen before, and into the bar where Annie Goodchild channeled a lounge singer from decades before with “When I Get Low I Get High.” (I would love a recording of that specific track sung specifically by her. If you’ve got hookups, please let me know!) The actress directed me to a spot on the wall, spun me around, faced me toward a curtain (starting more concerns that I’d be taken into a a smoky absinthe party, never to be heard from again), turned me about face, removed my mask, and kissed me on both cheeks. I stammered out a nothing, because in my head I wanted to say “Thank you,” while in my throat was still in “WTF just happened” mode. She laughed good-naturedly when she looked at me, as if we were old playmates and she had just found me in my hiding spot. And then she was gone. I looked at the other audience members who had been individually escorted to the lounge, and I beamed.
I’d love to see more of the rest of the show, so I hope the nine times that the end of its run has been prolonged continues for at least another year so I can take at least two more different routes.* It’s a fascinating experience, from the logistics of releasing a crowd full of people into a synchronized performance to the shedding of inhibitions when you’re just another masked person in an anonymous group. Regarding the latter: If you’re generally petite, people usually sympathize with you and let you work your way to the front of the stage at a concert. When everyone is masked and in maximum voyeur mode, tall people make no room for you and you make room for no one. Even from the audience perspective, Sleep No More is psychologically intense and not for the faint of heart.
I’m so glad we went. Let’s go again.
*It just so happens Maxine found that the production is looking for more dancers, and will be hosting a casting call on the 30th and 31st. Please! All my dancer friends! Click here for more information, try out, keep this production running, and invite me back.