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stage dive

Theater Review: The Freakily Immersive Experience of Sleep No More

What in Hecate’s name is Sleep No More? A dance-theater horror show? A wordless, nonlinear mash-up of Macbeth and the darker psychosexual corners of Hitchcock? A six-story Jazz Age haunted house for grown-ups and anyone who’s ever entertained sick cineast-y fantasies of living inside a Kubrick movie? ’Tis all these, and more besides: a deed without a name, to quote an infernal authority. (Also: ’tis sold-out, but set to extend, so get your trigger finger ready.) The UK’s Punchdrunk theater collective — famed for these sorts of immersive, site-specific experiments back on their native sod — has finally brought Sleep to the city that never does, and now, most certainly, won’t: The show infects your dreams.  

Sleep allows its “guests” great freedom. Presented with a bone-white Venetian beak mask (the kind favored by plague doctors in the Renaissance), you’re invited to gawk, shame-free, at whatever you see, to rifle through drawers, files, Rolodexes, and even coffins. You and your fellow voyeurs, enskulled in your morbid headgear, quickly become part of the creepy scenery. More to the point, you’re a ghost. (N.B.: This doesn’t exempt you from actor contact — in fact, you’re practically guaranteed to be interfered with at some point in the approximately three hours it takes to survey the space and absorb the long arc of the story.) Fending for yourself in the fictional “McKittrick Hotel” (a pointed Vertigo reference that dizzy or claustrophobic types should take to heart before booking), you’re given the run of six misty, intricately detailed floors, with more than 100 rooms full of (and this is a partial list) clues, red herrings, hair samples, teeth scattered like gaming dice, magic spells, animal bones in carefully labeled bins, a mass of old-fashioned desk fans that turn on and off at random, rotary-dial phones that have actual dial tones, grisly private eye photos of corpses, bloodstains that appear and disappear, patchy ad hoc taxidermy posed for maximal menace, and a ballroom stalked by moving trees. And all the while, you’re carried on perfectly modulated aural swells of Bernard Herrmann pastiche, courtesy of sound designer Stephen Dobbie.

Along the way, you’re guaranteed to stumble on what Punchdrunk’s directors, designers, and choreographers (Felix Barrett, Maxine Doyle, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns) refer to as “situations”: a man who may or may not be Duncan, right king of Scotland, being murdered in a sheikh’s tent. A gelid blonde who may or may not be Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca — here in loyal service to Lady Macbeth — spooning milky poison down the gullet of a soused, super-pregnant woman who very well might be Lady Macduff. The presumed Lady Macbeth herself is poised above her bloody bathtub, or climbing a mountain of antique furniture like a rabid ape. (Maxine Doyle’s wall-crawling choreography — two parts parkour to one part The Fly — helps the actors doff their humanity with ease; their sexuality, however, remains fixatingly intact.) And then there’s Macbeth himself, conjuring the Weird Sisters in a strobe-lit demon disco. “If it’s all too much,” a docent tells you at the beginning, “there’s always the bar.” I made use of it.

The show’s influences spider far beyond the Bard and Hitch: Players of puzzle-horror first person video games like BioShock will find the Sleep experience highly gratifying (and the notion of becoming a camera highly familiar). The amateur cryptographers of Lost will be be similarly pleased, as will the Escherheads who fetishized Inception. “Did I do it right?” I wondered afterward, having realized I’d missed half the plot points my fellow travelers had stumbled upon — and they’d, in turn, missed half the things I’d seen. Upon reflection, though, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. (If you’re interested in a strong story, though, I’d recommend you follow a specific actor, especially when someone plunges out of a room with purpose.) But this is the nonsense math of nightmares, a perfect Chinese box that invites you to look for solutions that seem designed, never to come fully into focus. I’d recommend a quick skim of Macbeth if you’re really interested in the whodunit aspect; full enjoyment of the atmospherics, though, requires no cramming whatsoever.

I’ve felt theater overwhelm me before, but until last Tuesday, I’ve never felt it pass through me. At the end of my story, a witch-queen in a red dress found me rifling through her study, held out her hand, and whisked me down to the ballroom, just in time for the climactic execution. It was a lovely evening in hell, one I’ll be recovering from for some time.

At the McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street, through May 14.

Photo: Alick Crossley