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Nessun Dorma until you see Sleep No More

I’d mapped out the subway route to the McKittrick hotel. We arrived at 11pm on the dot and an intimidating, but very friendly bouncer greeted us, checking our id’s – the unspoken promise of booze.

A brief line at the coat check and we were checking in to the hotel at what would’ve been will call at any other theater in town, but not here, not at the McKittrick – we were guests for the evening. My room key – a 7 of spades- would gain me entrance to any part of the hotel. I climb a few flights of stairs and found myself in black hallway lit by candles at my feet, I walk down to the end of the hallway and turn to meet another black hallway lit by a few more candles, each turn feeling more repetitive and more disorienting. I think we’ve already been here,  I hear my compatriot say – or was that someone else? I reach back for the hand of someone I know. A few turns later, we deposit into a prohibition-era Speakeasy – is this the play?

A man stands at the microphone calling us darlings, and women sell us shots of absinthe, which people are throwing back at the encouragement of the man at the microphone. Who are the actors? Will it all look like this? At this point, I’m so excited I am beginning to feel like I’m going to pee my pants.

Before we can go for a second ($10!!) shot of absinthe, 7’s are called, which we’ve observed means we need to get in the line forming at the far corner of the room. As we show our cards and head toward a room that brought memories of Disney’s Tower of Terror, we are handed white masks that we are instructed to wear and asked to speak no longer. “But if ever it becomes too much, feel free to join me on the second floor for a cocktail,” a woman with bright red lipstick slurs seductively. And so we enter an elevator with about 20 other masked people, ready for this one-of-a-kind immersive theatre experience.

Three abandoned warehouses, with five floors – or four, the disorientation still present in my mind – and the brief encouragement to be curious and wander alone.

I can’t tell if it was dinner’s bottle of wine settling with the shot of absinthe or the shadows at every corner, but wandering through scenes from Macbeth at my own leisure made them all the more creepy.  The Thane of Cawdor and all his drama inhabiting this hotel and the surrounding woods, and insane asylums and bars and graveyards. Every betrayal, every moment of greed told in a dark haze through modern dance and elaborate sets. I want to see it all. I am not going to miss anything.

For two-and-a-half hours we wandered through apothecaries and taxidermists. Wander through the ballroom one minute with more than a hundred other guests to observe a pantomimed banquet scene with Banquo’s ghost and find yourself there again, in a wood of trees with an indistinguishable actress dancing through them.

It was as non-linear and unexplained as touted, requiring the audience to discover its intricacies and decide which story to follow (although eventually all several hundred of us discovered we were meant to chase the crescendo’ing music like lemmings). The masks gave a sort of anonymity almost as intriguing as the story itself; people rifled through files scattered around desks and took cautious sips of drinks after characters had set down the glasses.

But what was the story, why couldn’t characters speak and how many times were actors going to dance fight? Were other people more immersed than I? Did the visitors searching for things and drinking after actors know more than I or less than I? If I didn’t know the story of Macbeth, would I be lost? Would I care? Was “Sleep No More” anything more than an eccentric museum attempting to discover a new way to explore Shakespeare? Was it successful? Does it matter what I think when it’s so wildly popular?

And that’s just it, for all of my critical thinking skills, my final thoughts were “IT WAS REALLY COOL.”

For my generation, “Sleep no More” proved Shakespeare’s relevance and revealed the direction theater needs to head to gain the approval of young people and critics. But I think someone else will do it better, and I’m excited to be around for it.

Throughout the experience – the play, as it were – characters would talk in voices not their own, about being a child and seeing their house go up in flames, which would make them question, “Is that all there is to a fire? Is that all there is?”And then they would break into Peggy Lee’s mid-20th-century hit (a slight anachronism for a film noir theme), which stuck in my head as I was climbing up and down the stairs of the warehouse searching through hallways and under bathtubs. IS THAT ALL THERE IS? What am I missing?

Eventually, as our faces began to sweat under the masks and the modern dance moves began to seem increasingly repetitive we decided to retire to the bar for a drink. Halfway into my over-priced, strong-enough-for-me-but-weak-for-a martini I had one of those moments when time stops and your head spins (and I swear I wasn’t drunk), art is transitioning all around us. We are living through a new period of art.

Art we can breathe. Art we can experience.

“Sleep No More” will not change your life, but it’s worth seeing because I promise there will be more theater like it in the near future.

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This entry was published on January 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm. It’s filed under New York, NYC, Theater and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Nessun Dorma until you see Sleep No More

  1. Great review! Vivid! Helps me make a decision. It is not for the faint of heart-or me.

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