- OnStage Associate New York Critic
When you check into the McKittrick Hotel, wear comfortable shoes and don’t bring any luggage – neither suitcase nor expectations. During the three hours of wandering five floors of an immersive production inspired by ‘Macbeth’ and set in the 30s, anything can happen. It might become a life shaping experience or it might annoy you like being cramped in the subway during rush hour. My companion and I fell on opposite ends of the spectrum. But a strange thing happened; leaving the show I felt disappointed, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
“Sleep No More”, produced by Punchdrunk and Emursive, came to the Chelsea gallery district in March 2011 and is based on the original 2003 London production. Critically acclaimed and beloved by the audiences, “Sleep No More” is directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle. The vastness and variety of the 100,000-square-foot space, designed by Mr. Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns, is truly impressive. The five floors of the dimly lit and hazy former warehouse are filled with dozens of sets executed with whit and attention to detail. There is an entire street with small shops on the both sides, a cemetery, a cabaret, a grand ballroom with mezzanine, a hotel lobby, a forest, and lunatic asylum. Add to it countless passages and hidden rooms, and you might get lost just by reading it.
After you arrive, they give you no map, minimal instructions, and a mask that you are obligated to wear during the entire time you are in the hotel. You are not allowed to speak and are encouraged to part with the members of your party. “There is no right or wrong way to experience it. Find something you like and follow it for a while” – says the Charon-esque elevator attendant as he opens the door on the fifth floor. A small crowed of masked anonymous audience members spills out to the maze of the rooms. Enhanced by the music design of Stephen Dobbie and lighting design by Felix Barrett and Euan Maybank, the space itself leaves a deep impression. You can spend days inspecting rooms for clues and impressive artwork. A nursery with a flock of beheaded baby dolls suspended in the air was my personal favorite.
Unexpectedly, actors emerge and start their scene, wordless and impeccably choreographed. But more often than not, the appearance of the actor would be announced by the footsteps of dozens of audience members chasing them. One might think that in a multiple-story set where action occurs simultaneously in multiple locations, the crowd should be, more or less, equally dispersed. But I often found myself in a situation where the audience is so densely stuffed in a room that I, not only couldn’t see the actors well, but also was also elbowed and stepped on. Being part of a silent, anonymous crowd of “angry ducks” spoiled it for me. After a previous immersive theater experience, Then She Fell, which takes only 15 audience members per performance, it was hard to let go of the anxiety, evoked by the obscured view and absence of a guided narrative.
Supposedly there is a story and if you follow the character, he or she will tell you theirs. But the set of “Sleep No More” is built in a way, which allows the actors to disappear into the darkness and haze really quickly. Sometimes they can single you out from the crowed and pull you in some tiny room for a one-on-one scene. I got this tempting offer from a character that appeared to be a taxidermist. He carefully inspected my arm and my clavicles, after which he removed my mask. For the first time my restlessness settled down and I gladly accepted an offered gumdrop. I felt like Alice, who just sipped from the “drink me” bottle. The taxidermist quickly recited lines from (I suspect) “Macbeth” right into my ear, put my mask back on and quickly delivered me to the middle of a bloody orgy scene lit by strobe lights.
This moment was quite memorable, although it still felt sporadic without an underlining narrative context. The experience is meant to be a puzzle,s but I got too few pieces to put a picture together. My companion gave up on chasing the action pretty quickly and spent a lot of time just sitting in one room, soaking in the details and the action coming and going around him, similar to a traditional theater. There is no right or wrong approach, they say. You have to be curios yet calm, move at your own pace and allow the experience happen to you. Everything you see, hear, taste and touch might eventually fall together. Well, it didn’t happened for me. As much as I appreciated the grandiose scale of the sight, the haunting atmosphere and some individual scenes, I didn’t get the sense of a coherent “story”.
McKittrick Hotel is located on 530 West 27th Street, Chelsea; (866) 811-4111. For more details and tickets visit sleepnomorenyc.com.