By Andrea Burzynski
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A haunted house, it's not. But for theatergoers including many high-profile celebrities hidden behind masks, "Sleep No More" certainly is haunting.
Dubbed "immersive theater" by directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle of British theater company Punchdrunk, the new show compels audience members to roam five floors and almost 100 rooms of the fictional 1930s McKittrick Hotel in search of performances -- small snatches of dance or largely silent scenes between actors -- that will lead them on an adventure.
With nods to the likes of filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, the show sends its audience -- all wearing Venetian beak masks -- drifting though graveyards, creepy corridors and sinister hospitals looking for items and performances that interest them.
Attendees, who are prohibited from talking for the length of the performance, might find a bloody letter or two actors in a panic, then follow them on an adventure into the unknown.
"Sleep No More" is "a lifelike experience where you don't know what's around the corner," Doyle told Reuters.
The show, which opened in April, has thrilled theater fans and extended its run Off-Broadway. It also has attracted a long list of celebrities drawn to the kind of voyeurism they often experience in reverse in their own lives. Included among the audience, who are all required to don white masks similar to those in Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," has been Natalie Portman, Kevin Spacey, Tobey Maguire, Hugh Jackman and Spike Lee.
On one night alone, audience members were unknowingly rubbing elbows with Justin Timberlake, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Neil Patrick Harris. The following night Matt Damon, Emma Stone and Emily Blunt wandered among the crowd.
Part of the attraction is that audience members are able to become lost in a world called "a voyeur's delight" and "a lovely evening in hell" by theater critics.
"We wanted to switch on the part of your brain that you aren't normally using in the theater," Barrett told Reuters. "What we want is a 360 experience where you get lost in this parallel world."
PUSHING THEATER BOUNDARIES
Barrett and Doyle believe that the anonymity encourages people to delve deeper into the experience and can bring out more voyeuristic impulses.
"Because you're anonymous, you're empowered to do things you might not do normally," Barrett said.
The performance is inspired by the themes of Shakespeare's Macbeth -- "guilt, betrayal, murder, ambition, suspense," according to Doyle. Items such as a letter from Lady Macbeth on a desk, and a famous quote from that play written in blood on a wall help evoke these themes.
"It is theater, but it's also dance. It's an art installation, it's performance art, it's nightlife," said producer Jonathan Hochwald.
Audiences are free to inspect letters, books, and trinkets sprinkled through the hotel, which was designed with the goal of "making sure there's detail everywhere," said Barrett. No sensory detail is neglected: the smell of dried leaves permeates a taxidermy shop, a forest feels cool and damp, and a candy store smells nostalgically sweet.
"It's the kind of thing that pushes an active experience, and that pushes conventional theater boundaries," Doyle said.
Added Barrett, "It encourages to trust their instincts and to carve out their own evening. There's no right way or wrong way to do it."
Depending on what one looks for and which actors one chooses to follow, "Sleep No More" is a different experience for each audience member -- a defining feature of this sort of immersive theater, said the directors.
"It's all about the individual response," Doyle said.
Some audience members see the production as offering an entirely different experience to the staid formats of musicals and plays shown on Broadway.
"I think there's always a hunger for something that enlivens the mind, that puts the audience into a position of control and power," said Barrett.
(Editing by Christine Kearney and Bob Tourtellotte)