Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sleep No More

Last night, I finally saw Punchdrunk's Sleep No More. A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune of seeing Woodshed Collective's The Tenant, another immersive theatre experience. At the time, The Tenant rather suffered in the press due to comparisons with the more lavishly produced British import. However, as much as I enjoyed Sleep No More, I find that in retrospect, The Tenant deserved more credit than it got.

Sleep No More, as most theatre-going New Yorkers know by now, is the massive walk-through ambiance drama currently ensconced in the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea. Though based loosely on Macbeth, don't expect a faithful production of Shakespeare. Audience members, referred to as "guests," check in at appointed times and are handed playing cards as their "room keys." This is the first device to split people up, as Sleep No More is a decidedly individual experience.

As guests wait in the ballroom, an announcer calls out numbers. When the number on your card is called, you are invited to the next room where you are given instructions, as well as a Venetian-style mask, which must be worn at all times. Some of the people in the room are invited into an elevator, again splitting people up, while the other guests wait for the next one. The elevator operator then lets people off on various floors. If you were expecting to spend the evening with a friend, forget about it. The producers of the show are determined to separate you.

And why? Because that's the best way to experience the adventure. And adventure really is a better word than "play" or "show." This is a theatre piece that is almost entirely about the design elements. There are actors who wander about, and audience members instinctively follow them, expecting the performers to, well, you know, perform. Many of the performances are decidedly mundane, however, though quite provocative. A man dusts dirt from a human skull. A woman strips with the aid of a nurse and washes herself in a bathtub, trying desperately to remove blood from her hands. A man with an umbrella buries a small parcel in a graveyard. These performances are, as some critics would have it, "post-dramatic."

But ah, what a set! While the non-profit Woodshed Collective did an admirable job with the budget they had for The Tenant, Sleep No More shows what you can do when money is no object. Woodshed offered their performances for free, while tickets to Sleep No More start at a hundred dollars. Once inside, though, you see where your ticket price has gone. A run-down building in Chelsea has been transformed into not just a mid-century British Hotel, but also into a hospital, a brick-paved street of shops, even a whole forest. The taxidermy alone must have cost a fortune. (Oh yes, there will be taxidermy.)

Though there is some muttering of phrases here and there, the performances in Sleep No More are for the most part non-verbal. This was the biggest difference between it and The Tenant. While audience members for The Tenant could overhear a myriad of different conversations, often happening at the same time in different parts of the building, there is little to hear in Sleep No More, other than the intense music and sound effects constantly pumped through the speaker system. Rather than traditional scenes, the characters perform athletic dance numbers, frequently flipping each other's bodies over in movements that are simultaneously violent and sexually suggestive.

Like The TenantSleep No More ultimately guides the entire audience into a large room for the climax of the piece. It is here, and in the ballroom afterward, that guests can reunite with the rest of their party. There are other major scenes as well, such as the murder (which I heard about, but missed) and a wild dance reminiscent of the Hecate scene in Macbeth (which I did catch). The performers tend to gather large groups together for these scenes, so you will probably see some though not all of them. With so much to explore, it really does not matter how many of these "scenes" you catch anyway. While in The Tenant there was a clear plot, in Sleep No More the atmosphere does not merely serve the show--the atmosphere IS the show.

If you're interested in Sleep No More, check out the website here:

To find out about Woodshed Collective, which produced The Tenant in 2011, click here:

Woodshed Collective