So, I went to Sleep No More in NYC this New Year’s Eve. Here’s kind of what happened.
First, they take your coat, and give you a red velvet cloak, and a mask:
You’re then led up a dark flight of stairs to a dark antechamber with a dark wood-paneled bar.You know what? Let’s just assume the working adjective for this whole thing is “dark”. As both a descriptor of the light level, as well as the presented subject matter. It’s easier that way. Anyway, onward.
The group is given a shot of some kind of absinthe cocktail, and are led into another room. Or to properly say, only some of you are let in. This is the first in several ways they try to separate groups, as the night is best experienced alone.
A woman with a vaguely Scottish brogue welcomes you, and gives a brief instruction: You’re to remain silent for the next three hours. She then gives a toast, you drink your shot, don your mask, and are led down a pitch-black hallway. Some groups are ushered into an elevator (Mrs LMNO was in one of these groups. They went up a floor, pushed one person out, closed the doors, and took the rest of the group to another floor). Others were led out into a decrepit graveyard.If the mentions of the ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ outfit, absinthe, and enforced spookiness are making your eyes roll, stop reading. You’ll pull an ocular muscle.
The entire performance takes place in an old hotel, four or five stories high. Each floor has been totally gutted, and sets have been built that change context and narrative as easily as walking through a door: a mental hospital turns into a woodland maze made out of dead branches; a room full of suspended doll parts abuts an accountant’s office; a bedroom becomes a ballroom. Smoke machines are utilized often, and overall is an ominous ambient soundtrack that sounds like the Kronos Quartet fighting with the soundtrack to Eraserhead
. The guests are free to wander about the floors any way they’d like. There is no set route, and there is no one to tell you what to do. You are in unknown territory; you have no idea what’s going on.
The other thing about the rooms is the attention to detail. The guests are allowed to go everywhere, touch everything. If you go into that accountant’s office, you can look through the ledgers, open the drawers, examine the paperwork, notice that there’s a hidden doorway that leads to a small darkroom with pictures of vivisected human bodies hanging about….
If you’re getting the impression that the entire place feels like an uncomfortable dream with no linearity or familiarity, you’re getting the hang of it. Because neither the floors or the rooms have any causal relationship to each other, you quickly become disoriented and lost, trying to find that room that was like the hold of a ship with a scratchy radio playing Kurt Weil songs, only to find yourself in a saloon with a baby doll lying in a font filled with congealing blood.
Then, movement. A man is charging forward, unmasked, with a torn shirt and suspenders, being followed by a blonde woman in a blue dress. He stops; she attacks him. They struggle. They start shouting at each other, but you can’t make out the words. Are
they even words? She turns away, sobbing. He storms out. Still weeping, she stands and heads in the other direction. What do you do? Do you follow the man, the woman, or keep exploring your space?
This is where the “performance” part of Sleep No More happens. Characters move throughout the sets and between floors, interacting with each other, and sometimes alone. Often, there are great stretches where nothing happens on a particular floor, or room, and then a quick three minutes of furious flurries of action occur. But no one is around to tell you where anyone is, who they are, or what the hell is going on. You just have to come across them, and choose for yourself who to follow, or where to go next. They move as if they are dancing (modern dance, of course), sometimes as if in slow motion, sometimes with violence and rage. Not to get too repetitive, but “dreamlike” can be used as many times as “dark” can. There’s also plenty of nudity (full frontal, both sexes (yum)
Not to say that the characters are made up from blank cloth. It’s not required to know the play, but the characters and themes are (VERY) loosely based upon Macbeth
. If one had no more knowledge than a quick scan of Wikipedia on the cab ride over, it is very easily to identify Macbeth, his Lady, Banquo, Duncan, and Macduff. The themes of treachery, infanticide, and the supernatural all make an appearance.
Maybe there’s even a coherent storyline. The way everything is set up, it seems impossible to follow each performer around the building, while keeping tabs on the other. I would guess it would take a dedicated effort and several visits to see everything that happens in those three hours (which, come to think of it, is kind of a brilliant way to sell more tickets). The performance ends by the sets getting shut down from the top floor down, which drives the audience into the ballroom, where a final scene takes place. It’s pretty powerful, if you’re into that sort of thing. You’re then led back out to the antechamber, which has been transformed into a speakeasy-type bar serving drinks and playing music, bringing everything back into the waking world. You now can remove your mask, find your group, and talk about what the fuck you just saw, comparing notes.
7/10, would go again.