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Sleep no more


September 05, 2018

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While in New York this summer, I experienced one of the stranger and more magical theatrical performances of my life, which says a lot because theater was my life until being a grownup happened. Sleep No More is a bizarre and confusing rendition of Macbeth, which is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Produced by Punchdrunk Theatre Company, it is a site-specific piece housed inside a five-story warehouse in Manhattan that has been converted into a maze that appears more like an art installations than a set.

The characters of the play rarely speak, so to say that the play has been rewritten feels wrong; rather, it has been re-envisioned, and most interactions are carried out through dance. Sometimes, that dance is subtle and more like miming. Other times, characters outright perform a pas de deux.

As an audience member, you are made to wear a black plague mask, and are encouraged to interact with the building in any way you feel compelled: open drawers, read documents, sit on furniture, tickle the ivories. Sometimes it’s hard to engage as much as you’d like, though, because the lighting is so dim you can barely see in front of you, and sometimes characters come rushing into the set you are exploring, and you have to jump out of the way.

What makes the performance even stranger is that the characters perform in certain rooms, and you might not be in them. While Macbeth kills Duncan, you might be exploring the asylum on the fifth floor, or the maze of the woods of Dunsinane. When the witches appear with their prophecy, you might be selecting a butterscotch from a glass dish inside an old-fashioned candy shop. And by you, I mean me: I missed a lot of the action of the plot itself because I was so ensconced in the building, which became its own very nuanced character and, honestly, my favorite.

I did see many scenes between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, himself, and most of those scenes involved dances that intimate sex, or copious amounts of blood in an old fashioned bathtub set upon a dais in a nearly-black room. I saw flirtations between other characters, whose stories and personalities were enhanced through Punchdrunk’s interpretation. I witnessed mysterious battles and slow-motion interactions at banquet tables. I followed a very pregnant woman down a set of stairs she seemed about to fall down.

What I saw was mesmerizing, human or no, and I adored every moment of my three hours inside the hotel. What will stay with me longest, though, are the masks, and their effect. I went with my best friend, Meredith, and insisted we stay together the whole time. However, because of the masks, which everyone wore except the actors, it was hard to keep track of her.  I forgot, too, that she couldn’t see me, and we weren’t allowed to speak during the performance, so I would turn to her, responding to the play or the set with a facial expression, only to realize she could not see me.

Sometimes, I turned to her and realized, within a few moments, that I wasn’t turning to her at all, but to a stranger of the same general height and build. I grew frightened at times when I was unable to find Meredith, which was often enough, as following a character meant practically running from room to room, from floor to floor, hustling up poorly-lit stairways so that at times, we lost not only each other, but the character, too, finding ourselves wandering again, aimless, through staged rooms: a taxidermy studio, a funeral parlor, a witch’s apothecary, a dentist’s office. In that way, I was often startled and panicked, existing within that dark space, disoriented, without my companion, unclear about which characters might come rushing into the room or whether I would be physically relocated from a set that needed, right then, to be used.

While the show required a lot of attention to detail, swift physical movement, and the ability to follow a loose interpretation of a familiar story, it also required much trust on the part of every audience member present. The spirit of the performance did not lend itself to violations, but the world is terrifying these days and typically, strangers are not considered our friends.

We all moved as an anonymous mass through an absolute nightmare mystery of a building, and we had to trust one another to be decent. So many things could have gone wrong, but eventually, after losing Meredith enough times in the bustling crowd, I did settle into believing that those around me were audience members just like me, there for the same reasons I was. Faceless, yes, but simply people similarly fascinated by this oddball performance and dreamscape.

Of course, returning to the streets of New York City after having removed our masks, my guard went back up: two slight women, alone late at night in the dark, are always potentially in danger. But during the play, it was a deep cognitive relief to feel somewhat safe in such an ominous environment, and that brief, earned trust between strangers is something I will never forget.

Once, with one other person in a reconstructed saloon, I watched Meredith pretend to pour drinks for a stranger who stood there, pretending to order and drink them, and we all laughed, surprised to hear our own forbidden ululations after hours of silence. We never saw his face. We never will.


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