Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sleep No More

From Reddit user neilk:

Some people call Sleep No More "immersive theatre" but that doesn't explain the essence of the thing. The current production in New York is performed in a multi-story hotel. The play is going on in multiple rooms according to a very complicated schedule and the audience is free to move from room to room. Many things are happening simultaneously so you have to come back multiple times to see everything.
The audience wears white masks and must be silent. The performers act as if white masks aren't there. (Usually.) Also, despite being billed as a play, the story is mostly told through physical actions and dance. There are fight scenes, ballroom scenes, seductions, murders, suicides, and some really far out stuff that you have to see for yourself.
The style is film noir, but with a surreal, macabre, sometimes gory, always disturbing atmosphere. Unsettling music is piped in everywhere. You can spend a lot of time just examining the elaborate sets, which also reveal clues about the story.
Occasionally performers will grab members of the audience and take them off into difficult to access locations. This chosen person or persons might see a scene that few ever see -- indeed where the performers outnumber the spectators.
A friend of mine compares it to entering "The Black Lodge" from Twin Peaks.

Here is the magic of Sleep No More

About midway through my experience, I became desperate to ditch the crowd. The building is five stories tall and each floor is full of macabre secrets to explore. I kept climbing and climbing until I reached the top of the 5th floor staircase, where a petite woman in a black mask blocked my way and shook her head at me.

I stalked through the fifth floor door and found myself in an elegant Victorian family apartment. The decor was sumptuous in a Tim Burton-eque way, lots of old toys and antique furnishings and paintings of unsmiling people. When I found my way to the youngest child's room, I saw that the mirror reflected a different version of the room. The room I stood in was neat and tidy, the reflection room was disheveled and had a large dark stain on the bed.

I left the apartment and found myself in a long, pitch-dark hallway. The texture underneath my feet changed and I realized I was standing on dirt. The only illumination in the room came from tiny blue-white lights under the floor. I realized I was standing in an area made to look like a graveyard at night. A small dark shape loomed at the end of the hallway. The eerie, discordant music swelled as I got closer. It was an old baby stroller, painted black.

I was in the home of a family whose child has died.

I've never seen storytelling done so artfully and with such innovation.

This is how Sleep No More works.

You buy an entry time and arrive at a large warehouse in Chelsea. You're surrounded by young twee yuppie types.

You turn in any bags to the coat check. No bags, no cameras, no nuthin'. The people working the door and working the coat check are well-dressed in a slightly anachronistic fashion, somewhere between 1920s flappers and Victorians.

You continue forward through a dark hallway. The reservation desk is at the end of the hallway. You check in and get a playing card (remember this, this is important) before getting instructed to head up to the bar. The path isn't obvious and you have to make turns through tight, dark alleyways. It's disorienting. In retrospect, I view it as time travel.

You arrive at the Manderlay bar. It looks like a Jazz Age club catering to vampire private eyes. Art deco accents touch every surface and the decor is rich, red velvet. The drinks are apparently amazing, but I wanted to be clear headed during the experience.

Finally, they start calling us. My friend had a King card and I had a Queen. The staff stagger their entry times, preventing any group from remaining together. Sleep No More is meant to be experienced alone.

Your ticket gets called and you're ushered into a waiting area by John Waters and Delbert Grady's illegitimate love child. He hands you a bauta mask that fits reasonably well over your glasses and opens the elevator. You ride for awhile. He says the following.

*Sleep No More is an interactive experience and meant to be explored. Don't be confined to one space and don't follow the crowd. Explore at your own pace.
*The people in the black masks are there for your safety.
*No phones, no photos, no talking, no taking off your mask.

People are let off at different floors. We get off at the basement. Some people go right, I go left. I run into a statue of an angel holding a candle. The statue's face is ruined. I shudder and move on.

The story is basically Shakespeare's Macbeth set in a nebulous film noir Jazz Age, with a few added twists and turns thrown in. Familiarity with the core story helps, but it isn't essential.  They do take a lot of liberties and add on a lot of elements.

There is no dialogue in the play. Aside from the occasional shouted "no!" the entire story is told through dance. The choreography is brilliantly done. I have an idea of interpretive dance as being histrionic and pretentious, but the actors do a beautiful job telling the story through movement and expression. 

One of my favorite little add-ons is the story of a young woman looking for her sister. She wandered onto the speakeasy set and sat across a redheaded woman in a red dress. They pantomimed an interaction and, at the end, the madam ripped the girl's bodice and put red lipstick on her.

Hours later, as I explored the hotel set, I ran into the woman again. She had a suitcase with her and she looked like all the misery in the world had been heaped on her shoulders. She was also very, very pregnant. As she crept through the apartment, she unfurled a mirror and stared at her reflection. You could tell that she'd had some rough times. Her story was told without words, with movement and facial expression.

I kind of wish I followed her more. But there's so much stuff to do.

I get weird when I wear masks.

If I have one real complaint about Sleep No More, it's that the crowd is really oppressive. The concierge tells you that you're better off exploring alone, but most of the major set pieces are in central locations and tend to draw groups. I got sick of trying to shove my way into rooms and decided to go off on my own.

I wound up in a tiny lunatic asylum. I was alone. I was wearing a bone-white mask. I've seen Jason Voorhees stalk across the screen a hundred times. I have a stocky body.

I went to the examination room, where an x-ray of a body hung over a horrible bondage chair. I went into a nursery, where a bunch of dolls with severed heads hung over an empty crib like a ghastly cherub. I went into a padded room where the fabric of the walls had been ripped and soiled.

I was a monster in a monstrous space. I liked it.

Sleep No More isn't really theater and it isn't really a haunted house. It's an experience.

I hate interactive haunted houses because I don't like people startling me, but the actors inhabiting Sleep No More don't seem to care whether or not you're there at all. The first time I saw one of the performers, I was in the photography room of the detective's office. The other audience members were rooting through his files. All seemed to be ignoring the photos hanging up on strings criss-crossing the room.

I unclipped one and saw the body of a mutilated girl. Something was carved into her back but it was nearly impossible to see in the dim red light of the office. I tilted my head, stared at the photo some more, and wordlessly handed it off to another audience member. I remember how sloppily he took the photo and the way he stared at it like a witless dog. He might as well not have been wearing the mask. 

I would have kept digging around if the actor hadn't shown up.

He was tall, handsome, and dressed like he'd stumbled out of the photograph of the New Years Eve Party at the end of The Shining. He pushed past us, collapsed against the desk, and fell through the floor clutching his heart. After a few moments of panic, he got back up and stumbled out of the office, back towards the main street of the eerie small town set.

By this point, a crowd of audience members had clustered up behind him. They chased after him as he ran. I stayed behind. Once of the doors adjacent to the detective's office lead to a funeral home. I'd slipped in eariler to flip through the client roster and found the preparation room. A large steel door was affixed to one side. I was sure that the door would open up to the morgue and I wanted to see it for myself.

It never did. Dejected, I wandered my way back to the main street in time to see another actor, similarly dressed, stagger down the street as if wounded. A crowd of audience apparitions followed him, their bone-white bauta masks making them all look like specters in Old Navy cargo shorts.

The actor staggered through the streets, falling in the center of a dim spotlight. The crowd gathered around him like silent executioners. He picked himself up and continued through the set, toward the eerie tailor shop with the rusty scissors in the window held up with red ribbon.

I watched the whole thing pass me by. The two actor's movements were almost in perfect synchronicity. One character, trapped in a panicked loop, stumbling around in the dark over and over again.

For the first time in my life, I really understood what it must be like to see a ghost.

I had a really intense emotional reaction to the ending.

You're given a couple of hours to explore everything in the McKittrick hotel before the attendants in the black masks begin funneling audience members toward the basement. You go underneath the hotel lobby, down the church staircase, and enter the grand ballroom. 

All of Macbeth's lovers, friends, and victims return to him at a big banquet. Things degenerate into a brutal squabble and MacDuff leads a grateful Macbeth to his gallows. The play ends with a very realistic hanging.

I have a difficult time with hangings. I turned my head and shuddered. We were all filed up the stairs toward the exit. I glanced back occasionally to see the body swing by the rafters, a silhouette against dark blue lights, swaying to some tinny recording of a Bing Crosby jazz standard.  

Seeing Sleep No More was one of the best experiences of my life. I'm addicted. I want to go over and over again. It hits all my ghoulish buttons, it's beautiful in a very macabre way, and it creates a world I want to continue to inhabit. I've heard people compare it to Bioshock, Inception, Lovecraft, or a zillion other old-world mysteries and horrors.

I'm addicted. I can't wait to go back. You should go, too.

New York Times review

Gizmodo article

Excellent first timer advice