“Sleep No More” and Being Manipulated

“Sleep No More” is a play currently running in New York.

That is probably the most boring way to describe what is, to date, my most enjoyable theater experience in New York. “Sleep No More” is performed by Punchdrunk, a British site-specific theater company. I have no idea what else Punchdrunk has done. What they have done with “Sleep No More” is take over three abandoned warehouses on the west side of Manhattan and convert them into a 100,000 square foot set. Inside the set, which includes part of a 1920s era hotel, a lunatic asylum, a graveyard, an English high street and a lot more, Punchdrunk performs a play inspired by “Macbeth”.

If you are having trouble imaging how a play takes place on such a complex set, then I should add that the audience, wearing identical white Venetian carnival masks, wanders around the set during the three hours of the performance. You are allowed to wander in and out of rooms and up and down the (I think) six levels with only minimal interference from from stewards, wearing black Venetian carnival masks, who are standing silently throughout the set.

The actors are not wearing masks and they move around the set, interact with other actors and sometimes with the audience members and sometimes disappear through doors through which the audience is not allowed to pass. Certain scenes repeat themselves until the final shocking scene that ends the night. My wife and I went twice and combined we had four different experiences. Our friends have gone and they had different experiences. I still not sure what exactly happens or why and although I think I’ve visited every corner of the set there are a number of scenes that I’ve never experienced. There are other scenes I’ve experienced two or three times. It is weird and brilliant and disorienting and I can’t imagine it’s like anything else. It is so enjoyable that the run has been extended at least twice. It is the type of thing that makes you feel glad to live in New York and glad to have the types of friends who tell you about such things and glad to be able to tell other people about. My only misgiving is that it is so interesting that I bet there is someone who right now is trying to figure out how to bring this show or something like it to one of the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

The only problem that I had with “Sleep No More” is that it is my nature to start trying to bring order to the chaos. On my first visit, I was lucky enough to know very little about what I was getting into. I wandered around and was never completely sure what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. When the performance was complete I was certain I’d experienced something great but I didn’t know why. It stayed in my head for days and when I learned that it was having the same effect on my wife we decided to see it again.

Armed with the knowledge from my previous visit, I set out to see new things and also see again some of the things that I’d seen the first time. I was a different participant than I’d been the first time. I started constructing what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I started noticing the stewards moving into place during certain scenes. I noticed props being put into place. I saw scenes repeated. In short, I started to notice the manipulation that goes into putting on “Sleep No More”.

As I’ve said before, all art is manipulation. The artist tries to get the audience to feel something. In some cases, the artist doesn’t want you to consider that there is an artist. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Ideally, the artist would prefer you didn’t know there was a curtain. (Alternatively, in some art the point of the show is the curtain, or lack thereof.)

In trying to bring order to chaos, in trying to understand how I’m being manipulated, I subconsciously start taking myself out of the moment. It can be frustrating. While watching a movie I’m thinking about how the director got that shot or why the actor made that choice. When listening to music I start to notice how I’m being set up for the climax. Lucky for me, I don’t do this while I’m reading. It is a blessing as it allows me to be surprised when other readers think something is so obvious. (Of course Ned is his father. What?)

This is not to say that I am always successful at sussing things out. “Breaking Bad” has never let me behind the curtain. I still have no idea where Bon Iver is going once the song starts. But other times, like in my second trip to “Sleep No More”, I can’t not see what’s happening. I suspect if I went again that I’d deconstruct the entire show in my mind. So maybe it’s better to stop at twice.

If you haven’t seen it, see it at least once. If “Sleep No More” ever closes in New York (and never opens in Las Vegas) then you will have missed something unique.

Waiting for Irene

It is always interesting to me to see how people prepare for a crisis. Or in the case of Hurricane Irene, a potential crisis.

The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, ordered that all mass transit be suspended beginning at noon on Saturday (well ahead of the storm) and that parts of the city be evacuated. No doubt Bloomberg was remembering what was perceived as an insufficient response to the snow storm last December.

My neighbors down the hall stocked up on water and batteries and radios. I’m not sure what they were remembering. Their paranoia was contagious so my wife and I made ourselves stay away from them.

My wife and I went to wine store on Friday evening and filled some buckets and the tub with water in case we wouldn’t be able to flush the toilet. I worried about losing Internet service. We wondered if we were being foolhardy.

By Sunday afternoon the storm has passed. We heard high winds during the night and there were a number of leaks around our building but no disaster. Our balcony, which was now empty because we carried in all our plants and furniture, was almost dry. By chance, my wife and I were right.

In different situations I’m happy to be the one to say “I told you so”. In this one, I have no desire to say this to my neighbors. What I know about the way the my wife and I reacted to this potential crisis compared to my neighbors is not that one of us has more expertise in meteorology. It’s that we prefer to live in a world where we don’t take these things too seriously.

Being in crisis mode can be addictive. Preparing for a crisis can make you feel smarter or savvier or wiser. If you are the type to prepare ahead of time, it can be very satisfying to advise those who inevitably develop crisis-preparation-remorse, who didn’t prepare and then rush around trying to prepare at the last second. You can benevolently give those people extra batteries and water. You are comforted that they accept that a crisis is coming.

On the other side are those who treat the potential crisis as just another thing that happens and the surrounding hysteria as a cynical attempt by someone to take advantage. (Disaster is always an opportunity for someone.) I am so much in this category that I ignored the initial reports about Columbine and Hurricane Katrina. I’m the townsperson who always thinks the cry of “wolf” is bullshit, even if there is plenty of evidence that there have been wolves and there will be again. I always think that someone is trying to work me up for their own nefarious purpose. Who stands to gain? (Follow the money.)

I’m not sure what all this means. My neighbors were relieved after the storm, although not that well-rested from having slept in their hallway to be away from the windows. I slept in my own bed and was able to wake up and watch a soccer match. It was another Sunday in my house. No doubt one of these days there will be a real disaster to worry about and I’m not sure how seriously I’ll take it. Until then, I guess I’ll just live with the satisfaction that I haven’t spent as much time worrying about these things than some. Maybe it means I’ll live longer.

Just Like Home

I have now lived in Europe for over three weeks. It is the longest I’ve ever been out of the country, beating my previous record of two weeks. It probably has not yet set in that I’m going to be here for a while, at least nine months or so not counting trips abroad, including back to the US. However, when I go to the US I won’t be staying in my apartment as it is currently occupied. For the time being, I will only truly be at home here in Europe.

This isn’t to say that this is a hardship. The apartment we are in is slightly larger than the one we have in Brooklyn, and there is an extra bedroom. There are windows in the front and back and even a small balcony. There is a flat screen TV and wireless Internet. I can say for certain that the apartment has exceeded my expectations. Still, it is not in Brooklyn. But the other night, I forgot that.

My wife and I were watching TV. Thanks to our VPN and sites like Hulu and Netflix, we are able to watch as much American TV as we have time for. The other night we were watching “Parks and Recreation” and “Fringe” and “Boardwalk Empire”. At one point I got off the couch and got something to eat from the kitchen. On my way back to the couch, I realized that I had forgotten that I was in Europe, at least at the conscious level. I could have been anywhere. It made me realize that the main thing I need to make me feel at home while living abroad is familiar television.

During my time here, more than one person has told me about a store that sells American products. I know these people mean well and can’t possibly know that I don’t need to see shelves of American junk food to feel better about being here. Reasonably priced Tabasco would be enough. One person told me that there is some kind of women’s club that my wife may want to join. (Not if all they talk about is their children.) Others have told me about bars or restaurants that feature American food or people or at least fanny packs and white sneakers, but we are eager to try restaurants where none of the food looks familiar. (I am trying to be sure not to eat horse.) But no one has mentioned how comforting watching American TV could be.

I think part of the reason that this hasn’t come up is that people here probably don’t love their TV shows like Americans do. So far I’ve met one person who has more than the 20 or so channels that you get with cable. He has satellite and he gets over 150 channels. I would feel more smug about how happy he is to have access to such a paltry amount of channels if Europe wasn’t already way ahead of the US with regards to cellphones. The Superior Technology Card will remain in my hand, at least until I visit a place with worse cellphone technology than the US. Maybe the Moon.

It also may not occur to people that it is possible to watch American TV while abroad. It was certainly my thought on a previous trip to Iceland when I discovered that Netflix won’t work there. Before coming here on this trip, my wife read about something called a VPN that could address this problem. I pretended I knew what she was talking about and then read up on what a VPN is. Basically, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that tricks the Internet into thinking you are in the US even when you (and your computer) are not. There are probably other uses for a VPN and there is probably a bunch of technical explanation for how this works but none of that matters. What is important is that with the VPN I can use Hulu, Netflix, and other legal sites to watch my favorite current American TV shows.

I am up to date on “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter”. I am looking forward to diving into “Homeland” and (eventually) the new season of “Mad Men”. True, I am now watching these things while drinking wine and eating a baguette, but it feels the same. While I am watching these things I could be anywhere, which means I could be in Brooklyn. We made sure to bring our clothes and certain other items that would remind us of home but the best thing we brought is the ability to watch our TV. It makes everything much easier.

Now I know there are people that don’t watch much TV and I know there are some people that don’t watch any TV at all. What advice do I have for those people who want to know how they can feel more at home while living abroad? None. What can I say to people who are obviously more sophisticated and more well-adjusted than I am? No doubt these superior people who already figured it all out. But for the rest of us who are dealing with foreign language fatigue and strange customs, TV is invaluable. If you are thinking of living abroad, sign up for Netflix and Hulu Plus and other legal sites and sign up for a VPN. Then just sit back and forget where you are.

Collapse Into Now, Or Just Collapse

If you live long enough, everything starts to remind you of something that happened to you earlier in your life. Maybe that is the source of the regular (and unsolicited) wisdom that is shared with younger people. Two things happened in the past week that reminded me of my youth, more exactly of my high school self.

The two things were the epic collapse of my Red Sox and also the announced retirement of R.E.M. There was a time in my life in which these were two of the most important things to me. In the summer and fall of 1986, both the Red Sox and R.E.M. were unusually important to me.

In the summer of 1986 I had just completed my junior year in high school. I was seventeen and pretty certain that I knew exactly how things were going to go for me. Actually, I didn’t have any idea but I was naively confident and just knew that my intelligence would allow me to succeed on my terms. (I wonder how my seventeen year old self would react to what my forty-two year old self would tell him about his future. The living in Europe part would be pretty cool, no doubt.) Anyway, the Red Sox were in the middle of a magical season, their first exciting season since the heartbreak of 1978. Clemens fanned 20 in a game in April and the irrational confidence in New England about our team was higher than usual. In the backs of our minds we all knew that the Sox would eventually let us down, but that didn’t stop us from pretending that year would be different.

In the previous summer, I’d purchased an album called “Fables of the Reconstruction” (or maybe “Reconstruction of the Fables”) by this band called R.E.M. I’d gotten the urge to buy the album after reading a review in Rolling Stone. (That’s how long ago this was.) I thought I’d never heard of R.E.M. although I figured out later that somehow I had seen them perform “So. Central Rain” on Letterman. I still can’t figure out how that was possible. Anyway, “Fables” is probably R.E.M.’s least accessible album from their classic period. (This runs from their LP debut “Murmur” in 1983 through “Automatic for the People” in 1992. Those nine years seem like twenty-nine in my memories.) About “Fables”, I can’t deny that I was disappointed. At the time, I was very into Springsteen and Mellencamp and other classic rockers. With R.E.M., I had no idea what the lead singer was saying, there were no lyrics included with the album (and no internet to look them up on) and the music didn’t fit comfortably into any box that I knew.

Given that there are certain qualities I had at 17 that I still possess, I pretended to be into R.E.M. and asked one of my good friends if he’d ever heard of them. My relationship with this friend was very odd. Decades before “frenemy” was invented, I had that type of relationship with this guy. He was one of my best friends and I was hyper-competitive with him about stupid crap. I was also jealous of him. Naturally, he had been aware of R.E.M. for years, since their EP. (I hated this.) Still, I went on like I was an R.E.M. fan, may have purchased “Reckoning” and “Murmur” and behaved like I was the type of cool person who like bands that weren’t really popular. (Meanwhile, another friend of ours was into stuff like The Replacements and Husker Du. What a jerk I was.)

Being a Red Sox fan in New England is nothing like being an R.E.M. fan pre-“The One I Love”. In my youth, being a Red Sox fan was the easiest thing to become, although it was often difficult to persevere with. It was expected that you cared how the team performed and that you were crushed when the team inevitably failed. It was a badge of honor, like the way New Yorkers feel about the general hassles of that city. You lived and died with the Red Sox and it meant something, something important, about you, about your character and about what it means to be from New England. I haven’t lived in New England in almost twenty years but judging by what I see when I go back, it is probably still the same way.

The Red Sox season officially became special early on, April 29 to be exact, when Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners. In my lifetime to that point, the Red Sox had never had a dominant power pitcher like that. Since the stomach punch of 1978, the Red Sox hadn’t finished closer than 2.5 games out of first, and that was in the strike-shortened season of 1981. In the three years leading up to 1986, the team had finished 20, 18 and 18.5 games out of first. After the Red Sox won on April 29, their record was 10-8. By July 26, the club was 58-38 and we all believed.

I mention July 26 because that is the day that R.E.M.’s fourth album was released, “Lifes Rich Pageant”. Whereas “Fables” had challenged and ultimately discouraged me, “Pageant” was rewarding. From the opening of “Begin the Begin” through the goofy cover of “Superman”, the album delivered. (Coincidence that it was produced by Don Gehman who also produced four classic Mellencamp albums?) The album was accessible, the lyrics were intelligible and they rewarded paying attention. (“I can’t even rhyme”, “It’s gonna fall”, “I believe my humor’s wearing thin”.) Suddenly more classmates turned on to R.E.M. I may have gotten there after my friend but I got there before a bunch of others. When “The One I Love” hit in the fall of 1987, I was ready to recommend “Cuyahoga” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” and “Pilgrimage” to the newcomers.

I also had my first real girlfriend that summer. I bored her with various tracks from Springsteen’s live box set and repeated attempts to compromise her virginity. (About five years later a Springsteen song, “If I Fall Behind”, became the song for her and her then boyfriend. It didn’t even feature the E Street Band! I think that guy also got her virginity.) To that point, it was the best summer of my life.

Everyone who was a baseball fan in the 80s or knows recent baseball history or was a fan of “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” knows how the Red Sox season turned out. I was watching Game Six in a hotel bar, courtesy of my girlfriend’s mother who worked there. (We were drinking soft drinks.) It got late and we had to get home. We listened to the game on the way back to my place (yes, she was driving) and the Red Sox had the lead going into the last half of the ninth. “Come on in so we can watch the Red Sox win the World Series”, I said. I refuse to take responsibility for jinxing the team as I’m pretty sure I was in good company in feeling confident.

Eighteen years later I was a married thirty-five year old resident of Brooklyn and I finally did see the Red Sox win the World Series. (My ex-girlfriend was married and raising two kids in New Jersey. Not with the jerk from before or with the guy who took her maidenhead.) I’d lost touch with R.E.M. after “Monster” although apparently they released an album that October called “Around the Sun”. Allmusic gives “Around the Sun” two stars making it the lowest rated album for R.E.M. (They also give “Out of Time” two and a half stars, the same as “Monster”. Maybe I can’t take their word for it.) In 2007 the Red Sox did it again. R.E.M. released a live album. I didn’t know about the R.E.M. album until I looked it up on allmusic.

Ultimately sports teams and bands aren’t really like each other. Sports teams last forever and often the only thing that this year’s team has in common with the team from your childhood is the same cap. Bands are finite and eventually breakup or tour in anonymity. But in the movies of our lives that we produce and star in, sometimes a band is playing on the soundtrack of the montage of your sports memories. Losing the 1986 World Series was devastating. It felt like the end of the world. A year later R.E.M. came out “It’s the End of World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. This year R.E.M. calls it quits after “Collapse into Now” and the Red Sox just collapse. These connections are arbitrary but that’s how memory works.

For the Red Sox, there’s always next year. R.E.M., on the other hand, has gone the way of trying to get to second base, of getting an older brother to buy beer, of believing in an infinite future. R.E.M. has gone the way of my youth.