The narrative for Sleep No More, the interactive play now playing inside a converted warehouse in Chelsea, borrows elements from Macbeth. But those expecting anything remotely Shakespearean from this performance art will be sorely disappointed. What they'll find instead, once they buy in, is a completely immersive, utterly fascinating, and remarkably weird experience.
Set inside the facade of the McKittrick hotel, the production -- put on by British theater company Punchdrunk -- asks audiences to commit themselves to a world vastly outside their own, set in a noir-like backdrop where mystery and intrigue come ahead of clarity and comprehension. Toward that end, we are asked to don masks and to remain silent for the entire performance; in a show of both appreciation and compromise for agreeing to these severe terms, theatergoers are permitted to choose their own adventure by wandering around the six floors and nearly 100 rooms and to touch whatever scenery or props they wish.
Almost immediately upon entering this dimly-lit and apparently haunted building, you're struck by the sheer detail that went into constructing such elaborate sets. Some rooms stand out for their massive collections of books, documents, notes, and portraits. Others find their power though simplicity and bareness. The lighting is also magnificent, used to not only set the mood for scenes and the overall experience, but thanks to some clever execution the lights alone often evoke emotion in audience members, mostly fear and claustrophobia. It took literally hundreds of people to pull off this production and, no matter how you feel about the final product, it definitely shows.
Beyond the behind-the-scenes work, the choreography for this production is incredible. With characters barely speaking (and when they do it's unintelligible gibberish), their body language is the only expression of their feelings. Many of the scenes that included two or more characters featured violent or aggressive moves that demonstrated both the drama behind the back story as well as, for the onlookers, a sharp contrast to the slow but suspenseful pace of the rest of the show.
Because you spend so much of this performance quite literally in the dark about what's happening and in search of answers, it's difficult to discuss the performers or much of the story itself. While many patrons chose to follow a character around once they spotted them (actors are mask-less) -- and joining dozens of other sheep-like others trailing right behind -- I found several of the 20 or so characters uninteresting in their own right. They organized papers or folded uniforms - nothing new emerging about them or the play as a whole. So I grew to avoid them when I spotted them in favor of continuing my pursuit of discovering more rooms or clues elsewhere.
But as I roamed around, I kept on accidentally stumbling across Macbeth or Lady Macbeth or both, the two characters who seemed to offer the most. As I witnessed a climactic scene unfold between the two leads, I also watched as hundreds of others filed into the room beside me. Everyone seemed to find their way back to that spot at just the right time. It had to be more than a coincidence. I wondered if this was a central component to the performance -- if everyone was following these same instincts and leaving the other characters in favor of finding something more exciting or interesting.
It's these kinds of questions, and not the story or characters, that make Sleep No More so intriguing.
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