It was a dark and stormy night.
We walked the gray streets of Chelsea under a steady drizzle of rain as we gazed upon the generic building fronts hoping to arrive at our destined address sooner rather than later. It was just cold enough for the rain to be unwelcomely chilly, like little specks of recently-melted ice oozing upon us.
We arrived at a warehouse attended by two men clad all in black. “Are you looking for the McKittrick hotel?”
Upstairs, a gay lounge decorated with an eye towards thirties glamour is hopping. A four-piece jazz band plays while a singer lovingly croons period music, a bartender dressed in spats serves up cocktails, and a woman in a blue sequined gown slinks around from table to table asking if you are ready to join the party yet.
By now, anyone even remotely connected to the theatre has likely at least heard about the Punchdrunk theatre company’s immersive theatre experience “Sleep No More”. The New York revival (currently playing at the McKittrick Hotel on W. 27th street) is a re-make of the phenomenon which hit Boston in October of 2009 (ran Oct. 8, 2009 – Feb. 7, 2010 at The Old Lincoln School in Brookline). To support the sheer amount of space required for the endeavor, Punchdrunk has taken over three conjoined Chelsea warehouses. According to the New York Times, 200 unpaid volunteers spent approximately four months meticulously putting the over-100 rooms in the hotel together. And believe you me it shows.
As you enter the hotel, you are given a white Venetian mask which you are asked to keep on during the duration of the production (my comrades with glasses reported that this made things a little difficult for them). You are asked not to speak, and (as usual) to silence your cell phones.
You are then ushered into a large freight elevator where a porter randomly assigns chunks of the party to begin their journey at different floors. We held hands to keep from getting separated (by the by, if you do go, go with a very small group or decide that you will get separated and agree to meet at the bar afterwards – it’s difficult to keep track of people in the dark when everyone’s wearing the same white mask and nobody is allowed to speak).
You enter a veritable labyrinth of rooms (environments really) where you are permitted to touch, move, examine and explore. We found everything from a foggy London street, to a taxidermist’s shop, an apothecary with dried herbs hanging from every available surface, a hedge maze, a ballroom, a Victorian hospital, a Victorian asylum, Macduff’s children’s rooms, to a large room with a bathtub filled with bloody water (I take this to be the Macbeths’ room). In every room there is something to discover (some of my favorite discoveries were hand-written letters strewn about the place including the famous letter which MacB writes his Lady Wife – “They met me on the eve of ascension…”).
As though the living museum aspect of this weren’t enough to sate the rampant voyeur, there is a human aspect as well. Actors dash about around you (easy to spot – they’re the ones without the masks) and you can choose to follow them and watch them meet up with other actors to portray wordless scenes in various environments of the hotel. Amongst some of the scenes we saw were the famous Macbeth banquet, a couple dancing in the ballroom, the Witches’ first encounter with Macbeth (complete with shot roulette), and the murder of Duncan.
I really can’t describe to you how wonderfully creepy the entire experience was. Imagine floating about darkened rooms, not knowing where you will end up when you turn a corner, constantly meeting with white-masked individuals who are somehow comforting rather than terrifying, and occasionally being grabbed by actors who seem to appear from nowhere. Perhaps the highlight of our time in the hotel came when we were attempting to find our way out. We had reached the stairway and were trying to follow an actor one way (at the back of the white-masked cloud) when a woman’s scream echoed through the hall. We all looked at each other, about-faced, and (like good heroes) ran towards it to find Macbeth standing over the body of a very pregnant Lady Macduff. Somehow, the knowledge that we had just missed the murder (even if there was nothing we could have done about it) sank sickly into my gut. Had there even been anyone there to observe her last moments? Had she expected to see him coming round the hall? Had she greeted him or did he surprise her? And did she try to fight him off or gracefully accept her fate?
Now this is theatre.
The experience jostled me. As we explored the different rooms, there was no doubt that I was moved; to tears, terror, laughter, excitement, suspense, pity and everything in between. Being able to touch and be touched by what was going on brought the story home to me in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Of course, there isn’t really a cohesive story. There is no set path for a visitor to explore, there is no pre-determined way to experience the hotel. Proprietors estimate that each guest only sees 1/16th of the total experience. And I won’t say that at times I wasn’t left wondering “so what does this have to do with Macbeth?” But even in those times, I was too enraptured with what was going on around me to mind too horribly much.
Some reviewers find that Shakespeare haunts the attraction rather than is the attraction. I don’t entirely disagree with them, but I find it difficult to lend their argument full credence. Certainly liberties were taken with “Sleep No More”, and there are things which still don’t make sense to me. That, however, is what I think holds the greatest appeal. The entire thing is a puzzle which can be solved one of ten billion ways and it is up to each individual to determine her own experience and what that experience means.
When I left the hotel I was exhausted. I felt like my mind was going to leak out my ear. I had a difficult time forming coherent sentences, and we drove home through the now-torrential thunderstorm in almost complete silence. As I collapsed into my bed that evening, all I could think was “Macbeth hath murdered sleep.”
…for that… I slept like a baby. Despite having bizarre blood-soaked dreams with figures in white Venetian masks and random time-traveling with an eye towards steam-punk style globetrotting antics.
Go. Seriously. Find some way to get there. This is a veritable revolution in the way audiences experience Shakespeare and I can only hope that this cutting edge cuts deeply into the fabric of American Theatre. I don’t think that saying “I will cheat on the bard” works here because technically I didn’t really…. it’s more like having a tryst with his similar-yet-different twin brother.