“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.