Monday, June 27, 2011

Play Review: Sleep No More



In a sparsely populated area on the West side of New York City sits the Mckittrick Hotel, a old five floor building that is still stuck in the 1940's and houses one of the most brilliantly conceived theatrical productions in the world. Sleep No More is the brainchild of Punchdrunk, a UK-based theater company that specializes in free-flowing performances that allow the audience to roam and experience events on their own. I ended up attending the well-reviewed New York show at the McKittrick with Karrin on Saturday night. The best way to review this work of art is to give a blow-by-blow synopsis of what I experienced. Keep in mind that my experience was unlike what any other audience member experienced on his/her own. Warning: If you want to know NOTHING about this play, skip to the last paragraph of this review. Sometimes it's best to know
as little as possible when going into an experience like this one.

We arrived at the hotel after having an excellent dinner across the street at Ovest (delicious short rib Gnocchi!). The performance actually started in line to get in the hotel as the "bouncer" at the front door was a young woman with an excellent British accent who seemed ultra cheery and decided to ridicule some of the guests. It really set the tone for the rest of the night. Once we got in the door we were led to a check-in area. I simply told them my name and both Karrin and I each received a playing card. I got the Queen of spades and Karrin got a 10 of clubs. We then had to find our way through a sequence of small dark halls until we arrived in a lounge that was totally time-warped back to the turn of the century. A band was performing, waitresses passing out drinks (including Absinthe) and guests milling around. Every 5-10 minutes an emcee would take the stage and announce that everyone holding a certain card can now enter the door at the side of the room. When we got there, they announced 8's, then 9's. I was kind of antsy as Karrin had a 10 and I had a Q. I ended up trading with another guy who wanted a Q to get an identical 10 to Karrin's card.


About 10 minutes later, the 10's were called and we both proceeded to the side room where we were each given a white mask (shown here). We put the masks on and gathered with 20 or so other people in a small room. Another young woman came in and explained to us the rules of the performance. We were able to walk anywhere and touch anything but could not take our mask off or talk to anyone. The whole explanation was very cool and eerie and we were handed off to the elevator operator who kept stopping at random floors, letting a handful of us off the elevator at each stop. Once Karrin and I got out on floor three we separated. We had read some reviews that said the show was best experienced alone so everyone in your party didn't end up seeing the exact same thing. We did end up bumping into each other a couple times during the night but for the most part I was on my own.

Thankfully I wore shorts and sneakers for the performance as I spent most of my time walking briskly from floor to floor and checking at least 60-70 rooms. Some of which were stuffy and uncomfortable while others were cool and airy. Wearing shorts was the right decision as I'm pretty sure I lost a few pounds during the show. The "plot" of Sleep No Moore is loosely based off of Shakespeare's Macbeth but played more like a weird David Lynch film. I immediately started off going from room to room on the third floor, rummaging through old books, opening drawers and finding various random knick knacks. The first encounter I had with a performer was when Lady Macbeth stumbled into a room full of old hospital beds. She kept mumbling something about blood. I followed her into another room filled with 8 bathtubs. She then disrobed (I probably saw about 4 pairs of breasts and enough male nudity for one night) and got in a tub and immediately started to wipe blood off her hands and scream. A nurse then came in, comforted her and whisked her away.

Later on I was in a room with two other audience members. One guy was behind a counter of jars of candy, looking through a ledger. Just then, an actor came in (the actors are easy to spot because they're the only ones not wearing masks) and grabbed a bouquet of flowers off of a table. He then walked to the audience member behind the counter and pointed to various jars of candy. The audience member in the mask kept reaching for jars and opened them for the actor. It was an early-on piece of unique audience/cast interaction that made me realize this play was whatever I wanted to make of it. Keep in mind that all of these events are in some way tied to the overall plot but with so much action happening at once on five different floors, there are things I definitely missed. In talking with Karrin, she ended up seeing more killing scenes than I did while I ended up witnessing a cabaret singer in the hotel lobby and a four-way fight in and around the check-in counter.

The brilliance of Sleep No More is the freedom given to the audience. I was able to go and stand wherever I wanted. I could go right up next to a performer and study him/her up close. At one point, Macbeth scaled a wall next to me and literally walked over top of me. At another point in the action I ended up at a small shack in the corner of a large room filled with a maze of tree branches. A nurse was standing at the opening of the shack looking into the distance. She then pulled an audience member into the shack with her. I moved close to the wooden structure and peered through a tiny crack I could see into the shack and saw the nurse take the audience member's mask off and then start to feed her some tea. She was also talking in whispers to her. It was very cool, and intriguing. Anyone who is into voyeurism will have a field day at this play.

The signature moment of my personal experience in the play came 2/3 of the way through the night. I started following this young woman who was carrying a suitcase. I saw her in the hotel lobby down on the first floor and walked behind her up to the third floor. Not many other audience members were joining me so I kept pursuing her. She stopped at a door to another room I had never been in. She then turned around, looked at me and held out her hand. I of course took it (having already seen the cool scene in the shack) and she lead me into the room. She turned and locked the door, then slowly walked to me and took off my mask. At this point I was slightly freaked out. I didn't know whether to talk, smile or run away. She then hung up the mask in a closet at the back of the room. She led me over to the opening of the closet and started telling me a story in a soft-toned French accent. It was very Shakespeare so I lost interest early and couldn't really follow it (I mean I was trapped in a strange old hotel room with a stranger - all be it a cute one). After her two minute story she took a little locket necklace out of the closet and put it around my neck then whispered that this would keep me safe. I sort of actually believed her and she put my mask back on and then gently pushed me into the closet and closed the door. I then realized the closet was a door to another room and managed to fumble around and find my way out and back into the overall performance space. This was a great example of the unique experience that each audience member can have in Sleep No More.

On top of the interactivity and originality of the performance style, the set design itself was out of this world. So many intricate details throughout the rooms of the hotel really make you feel as if you are in another time and space. A particularly strange sequence occurred in a room filled with pounding club music and a strobe light. I stumbled into a weird scene with naked people dancing with each other and passing a bloody newborn baby around. Really, if you don't like weird bizarre things this show might not be for you. Towards the end of the night we were escorted by the actors down to the first floor an experience a final scene where all of the audience is joined together. After the scene we found ourselves back in the lounge we started in and walked back through the dark corridors and out into the streets of New York wondering WHAT. JUST. HAPPENED!

Sleep No More comes extremely close to receiving the first 5 out of 5 JR rating for 2011. I had to bump it down to a 4.5 as I really wish the story was different. The Macbeth angle didn't really appeal to me and the lack of overall dialogue by the actors was slightly annoying. If you take the same setting and add in some more scares and actual conversation (non-Shakespeare especially), you would have the most engaging play experience imaginable. I would also recommend going on a weeknight if possible. There were a lot of people at our performance and I really think it would have been more enjoyable (and less cramped) if a third of the audience was not there. As-is though, this is a must-see for anyone visiting the Big Apple. Prepare yourself for a totally unique and original immersive experience that you alone can control. I'm hoping Punchdrunk decides to take their talents to DC sometime.

Interesting side note: Walking back to the hotel after the play, some guy came up to me and asked where I got my mask. I told him and he offered to pay me for it. I ended up selling it for $10 as I'm pretty sure I won't have another chance to wear it again. Keep that in mind if you go and want to make a little cash on the side.

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