Sleep No More NYC: Macbeth Murder Mystery Mashup

Guests must wear these masks ... and remain stumm. Photo by ChelseaGallerista
"I got a spare ticket to see Sleep No More tonight. Interested?"

Does a chicken have hard lips?

This über-hyped "immersive theatre" production (a UK transplant) is so solidly booked to its cobwebby rafters, I hear scalpers were having a field day until it was extended through December.  Meaning, those of us slowpokes get to see it, and others with a spare $75 can return to catch what they missed first time around.

There are countless reviews of this production on the web, so what follows is Chelsea Gallerista's personal experience.

Sleep No More resembles a self-guided murder mystery. It's based on MacBeth and staged in a formerly glorious, now shuttered Chelsea hotel, The McKittrick - and fitted out to the nines with creepy conviction. I read that there are 93 rooms of garage-sale tchochkes and more in a space of 100,000 square feet, and that you will never see it all even if you labor the full 3 hours.

You enter via a cocktail lounge/bar - a period piece in itself - where we were plied with shots of absinthe. It was unclear if these were complimentary, so I abstained form the absinthe. We were then issued with white masks and instructed to wear them for the entire duration show. Why? Co-director Felix Barret's explanation is cogent to the point of pain:

The masks create a sense of anonymity; they make the rest of the audience dissolve into generic, ghostly presences, so that each person can experience the space alone.

We were also issued two playing cards - one was hole-punched by a minder, but it wasn't clear what the other one was for (a complimentary absinthe?)

Then, Adams-Family like character actors ushered us into a freight elevator and released us selectively out onto the 5 floors. We were on our own

And it really is best experienced on your own, once you get over the natural instinct to cling to your pals. One gal jumped back into the elevator in terror when it looked like she was going to be separated from her group. I read a comment by a woman whining that she was separated from her husband and thus had a "compromised experience." Sticking with your pals, who you can barely recognize in the dark behind those masks, will compromise the experience. Once your eyes and nerves adjust, you'll be better, as Barret says, "experiencing the space alone."

You were no supposed to take any pictures. My cellphone camera accidentally went off.
Actors pop up here and there to play out cryptic, highly sexually charged scenes which presumeably nod to key scenes in MacBeth (you're talking to a computer science major here *blush*). The actors  are all dancers, as you can glean from their virtuosic, wall climbing, table dancing antics.

One room is flanked with claw-foot bathtubs receding to a vanishing point; a naked woman sits in one and tries desperately to wash blood off her hands.

A couple of floors below is a giant, spooky graveyard sprinkled with stuff that crunches underfoot as you navigate across it through swirling mist. Even further below is a cavernous basement area with trees on casters that get moved around, the shifting forest.

In a restaurant, a pregnant woman (Lady McBeth) licks some liquid concoction from a plate like a cat.

In an old attorney's office, a lawyer is wordlessly arguing with, then finally kissing a client.  Somewhere else a man is stuffing a pigeon, while a masked audience member gets right in his face, touching his tools.

On yet another floor, I stumbled upon a rave-like dance scene between a naked man with a giant ox head mask and blood dripping down his chest, a couple of shaved headed women (one breast was set free) and a model of a bloodied baby all carved up by squint-inducing strobe lighting and stuttering electronic soundtrack. Whew! I actually came across this scene twice; the content is performed 3 times so everyone gets a gander.

It's all very dark and largely wordless. The main noises come from the stampede of audience feet as they follow a chosen actor around the hotel. I joined one of these stampedes and that's how I got to see several acts.

You are not allowed to take pictures inside the hotel. My ever brazen comrade took my camera and shot a couple, then nipped away leaving me holding the Bagberry. A black masked aide suddenly appeared, drew me aside and hissed, "You have to delete that photo." Now when someone stands over you (I'm only 5') wearing a black mask in a blacker room while some haunted soundtrack moans from hidden speakers, does one argue? I enthusiastically deleted the shot.

As the time drew close to 10pm, upper floors were closed by security guards, until everyone was funneled to the ground floor for the drama of a Last Supper-like final scene. On this occasion a brass band suddenly piped up and people started dancing. Masks came off, the bar was open.

So what was the verdict?

"Good, though I thought it could have been more interactive," commented my friend. It does seem that immersive theater, coupled with the public's penchant for touching and rummaging, buys the creators a certain amount of "grace." They could throw anything at you - you tend to give the entire production the benefit of the doubt.  Though exploring and rummaging was encouraged, it was often too damn dark to read anything.

Somewhat anally I note that if there was any pilfering of tchotchkes from drawers and dressers, it would have been easily replenished with a quick trip to a garage sale. And the only time I started experiencing a flash of deja vu was when I backtracked through rooms.

"Is it possible I've I seen everything?" I whispered to one of the shadowy minders after almost 2 hours of traipsing and stumbling. "No," came the answer from behind a creepy black Lone Ranger mask.

"Keep exploring."

Sleep No More
McKittrick Hotel, Chelsea, through Dec 31, 2011.

New York Times writeup
Women's Voice for Change
and so on.


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