The good news about writing a review of a performance long, long, long after you actually attended said performance is that, if it was a good one, it can be a real hedonistic rush to relive the highlights. Two days ago, when it occurred to me I was long overdue for a review of Sleep No More, the memories began, slowly, to dribble back into my active consciousness. And what a ride it has been. The uninhibited thrills I felt the night I went to Sleep No More in mid november ’09 are, to be fair, coming back as slightly-more-muted tingles and goosebumps now, but the impact of the show was so sensational that any opportunity to relieve even the smallest iota of it is brilliance is a privilege.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen: GO. SEE. SLEEP NO MORE. Period. End of sentence. It is a theatrical experience that must be experienced, and as much of a bitch it is to get up to Boston (especially if, like me, you’re not exactly in a financial position to see any performance on the east coast at the drop of a hat), if you have the means, do it. I will attempt to describe my unforgettable night at the Old Lincoln School in the subsequent paragraphs, but the show is so amazingly individual-audience-member focused, and so fantastically unique, that I know already I’m engaging in a losing venture. There is, quite simply, NO WAY I can adequately do justice to Sleep No More in writing. I will do my damndest, but I know I’m going to be disappointed. It was that good. And that special.
Where to start? Sleep No More is a theatrical installation which follows a nontraditional theatrical structure. The Old Lincoln School, a humongous abandoned school in Boston, comprises the set, and the audience is invited to explore at their will. There are no seats, no programs, no acts, no intermissions. According to the A.R.T. website:
“The Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts, has been exquisitely transformed into an installation of cinematic scenes that evoke the world of Macbeth. You, the audience, have the freedom to roam the environment and experience a sensory journey as you choose what to watch and where to go. Rediscover the childlike excitement of exploring the unknown in this unique theatrical adventure.”
Based thematically on Macbeth and aesthetically on the films of Hitchcock, Sleep No More loosely follows the “story” of Macbeth, but don’t be surprised if, after your own three hours inside the performance, you couldn’t identify a single actor with the Macbeth character they were meant to represent. And don’t be surprised if despite absorbing not an ounce of “story”, you enjoy the performance more than any narrative-focused piece you see this year. (And you know that got to be hard for me, the narrative-lover that I am, to admit). As I’ll explain, for the first half of the show, I had no idea what the fuck was going on. And that was OK, you ask? Yes, yes it was. Let me go ahead and walk you through my own experience at Sleep No More:
The show had three entrance times for audience – 7, 7:20 and 7:40. Not understanding what this meant, we – my mom (who once again gamely accompanied me) and I — selected the 7:40 entrance time, not realizing that that simply meant we entered an ongoing show 40 minutes in, and thus got 40 less minutes to experience the performance than those lucky 7 pm ticket holders.
Regardless, we got to the venue (and what a huge one it was!) at 7:40 pm, and were escorted in to a completely decked out, totally sweet 1930s style bar. Our escorts informed us that the bar (called the Mandalay) was something of a “home base” during the show- somewhere you could always come back to if you needed a break or a breather. (Attempting to find it when you were wandering through the three (four?) floors of performance space that awaited you beyond its doors was the unstated catch, however). In batches, we were invited to follow a guide in to the show, through the murky, darkened hallway outside of the Mandalay’s cheerful doors. My group of 7 or so hesitantly followed our smarmy, self-satisfied guide to an elevator that was to take us deep into the heart of Sleep No More. (Hey, I couldn’t really blame him — I’d probably be way more than smarmy and self-satisfied if I had a gig working with the sweetest show on the East coast.)
As we hesitantly stood in the elevator, he passed us white harlequin masks and told us that not only did we have to put them on now, we also weren’t allowed to take the off during the show. Ever. Now, I can see what a brilliant strategy this was — not only did it help the actors and crew to immediately identify audience members, it also helped audience members do the same, and finally prevented audience from obtaining “this-is-awkward” reinforcement from each other. You know how it goes: you’re at a show or a performance that’s weird — and I mean really weird — and you instinctively feel the need to lock eyes with your fellow spectators, confirming with well-placed looks and widened eyes that yes, the show is weird. Not only does this distance you from the piece itself, it’s also an exercise in cowardice. How much braver to face a performance ON YOUR OWN, away from the reassurance of an equally confused audience member. During Sleep No More, it was frankly impossible to obtain that kind of refuge from your fellow spectators. After all, they were all wearing weird masks. I realize I’ve been harping on these masks for awhile, but I still can’t really get over how brilliant they were — they basically kept the audience in a paralyzing state of permanent powerlessness, isolated from each other and unable to do anything but stop, look, and listen.
Taking our last look around, exchanging the last comfortable “what the hell” glances that we could with each other, we slipped on our masks. At first it was MEGA embarrassing, but amazingly, everyone obeyed the “don’t take them off” rule and soon it became par for the course to stumble upon a fellow audience member wearing a mask. Without further ado, the elevator door opened and we were unceremoniously dumped into Sleep No More.
It is impossible to describe the scale to which the space was installed. It was mesmerizing, walking through the perfectly installed rooms, each and every one different from the rest, it’s own perfect, detailed little world. How many rooms were there? It was impossible to know — the installation was so overwhelming that even know I can’t recall if it was 3 or 4 floors. Some rooms were perfectly installed to look like they came out of a Hitchcock film — a 30s bedroom or a twilight-zone-esque hotel lobby. One was full of fresh pine trees and smoke. Another had woodchips on the floor and shelves full of flea-market perfect junk. One had a baby crib in the center, and suspended in midair above it had to have been dozens – maybe over 100 – suspended pieces of baby dolls. (Yes, I said pieces). One was installed to look like the perfect replica of an italian garden, complete with topiaries and rock paths. The school’s auditorium had dozens of extremely large pine trees on castors, which could be rolled around to create an eerie, witch-appropriate forest or pushed against the wall to accommodate spectators watching the action on the stage (the site of the Macbeth feast). One of the first rooms I went into was full of bathtubs – it was attached to an adjoining room that was decked out to look like an old-school dormitory. As I looked into each of the bathtubs I got the shock of my life to discover one had several live eels swimming around in it. How many rooms in total? I have no idea, and frankly can’t imagine I saw all of them. 40, maybe? I’d like to imagine there were hundreds, and if I had all night I could have just kept exploring them, passing from one to another. As one reviewer stated about the show “it was like you were caught up in someone else’s dream”, and had no choice but to hold on and enjoy — or at least, experience — the ride.
Of course, at the beginning of my time in Sleep No More (and really, it feels far more appropriate to say my time “in” Sleep No More than my time “at” Sleep No More) I didn’t feel any of this wonder. I was anxious and, after the eel incident, freaked out. But also, of course, I was lost and confused. The performers, dressed primarily in 30s garb and conveniently recognizable by their lack of masks, walked through the dominating space with purpose and entirely unconcerned whether they were entirely alone or followed by a throng of 30, 40, 50 spectators. True dedication to their character and a great performance ethic, certainly, but very inconvenient if you happen to be a spectator all the way in the back of the throng with an annoying need to know what’s going on at all times. (Recall my disastrous initial attempt to understand the play Fatebook: https://theaterjunkie.wordpress.com/2009/10/24/fatebook-at-area-919-2009-live-arts-festival/) Yes, that was me. Although the first 10 minutes of my time in the show were spent walking alone through the installation, the second an actor passed by (followed by probably 20 audience members tripping over their toes to keep on her trail), I was immediately seized with the urge – nay, need – to be in that throng, to know where she was going, to “get” the story.
I didn’t particularly get anywhere, however. The first actor I followed led me down some stairs before clashing with another actor, an interaction that I missed because of how far back in the crowd I was. (Did I mention that any eerie, quiet spell the the piece cast on my as I explored those first couple rooms pretty much dissipated when I was surrounded by dozens of equally eager and pushy audience members? So much for my private moment with the tub full of eels…) I continued to follow this first actor, and caught a bit of her next clash with another actor — that was the moment I realized Sleep No More was more of a dance performance piece on the actors part than straight theater. Their interactions were entirely dance-based, no text or dramaturgy (goodbye, dream of being a writer for Punchdrunk…), and the actors, possessed of incredible dancer capabilities, acrobatically clashed into one another, composing duets with their bodies that loosely conveyed the story of Macbeth. Not that I appreciated any of that when I saw my first interaction. Instead, I struggled to understand, interpret. “Well, that’s probably Lady Macbeth and uhm…Duncan? A servant? No, definitely Duncan”, I decided. (Not that it should come as a surprise, but I learned later that I was entirely wrong).
I continued following my actor, convinced that I’d stumbled upon Lady Macbeth, the veritable motherlode as far as I was concerned. But it was crowded, and I kept being pushed to the back of the group, all of us silently vying for a prime viewing spot. I was hot, overwhelmed, and confused, and starting to suspect that maybe she wasn’t Lady Macbeth at all. The next time she passed a different actor with a slightly smaller following, I switched to him instead, visions of the Fatebook actors telling me to “pick one actor and stick with them!” dancing in my head, warning me of such a rash action.
My next actor didn’t particularly get me much farther, though, and I was beginning to get frustrated. I had no earthly idea WHO he was meant to represent, but when he landed in a room with several other actors (it was the first time I was in a room with more actors than audience) I thought something might be about to happen, and my interest was re-piqued. This room did not disappoint; there was a big brawl between the characters in the midst of their cardgame, and I was convinced at least one of them had to be Macbeth. If I could only figure out who, I’d have the right character to follow when they eventually left the room…as the fight broke up, (it was as beautifully choreographed and effortlessly danced by those amazing physical actors as anything I saw that night), I hedged my bets with one of the actors and was prepared to follow my newly christened Macbeth when something caught my eye. The room, by this point, had rather filled up with audience, but the actor playing a servant, standing at the bar wiping a glass, was staring directly at me. Me.
And I don’t just mean casually staring at me; this servant was giving me a hard-core glare. I felt like I’d never been more startled or thrilled in my life — in the midst of the chaos of actors and audience stuffed into this tiny room, this one servant-actor had made a visual once-over of the room and landed on yours truly. I couldn’t look away. Frankly, I couldn’t even move. I mean, I’ve had actor-audience interaction in my time (I’ve been on both sides of the coin, in fact), but this felt different, weirder. More urgent. I had no idea what was going to happen. I could only stare back. She cleaned her glass, the glare getting deeper. Finally, slowly, her arm began to raise, finger outstretched. She stood there, frozen, pointing at me. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I took a step back. Her arm lowered. She broke the eye contact, nodded a bit. I’d passed the test. I looked around. The room was empty.
And suddenly, it was OK that I’d missed my potential-Macbeth leaving. Because I’d gotten so much more. I’d gotten a kick ass thrill, but most importantly, I no longer cared if I even got one iota of “story” out of my night, or understood even remotely more than I did at that moment. I was excited, exhilerated. Fucking theater, man!
There’s so much more I could tell you about Sleep No More, including some really amazing almost-everyone-involved group feast scenes, but the moment that sticks out in my mind happened later. Armed with my new, see-what-I-feel-like-explore-what-I-want attitude, I wandered the rest of the installation and very, very rarely attempted to follow specific actors or the dozens of audience members trailing them. Instead, I went into rooms that looked interesting, and suddenly I began to find scenes coming to me. I opened the door to one room to find a very bedroom, filled with clothes, letters, and knickknacks. And, oh yeah, an actor. She started when I came in, looked up at me. I looked at her.
We were alone, and I had stumbled upon Lady Macbeth in the Macbeths’ bedroom. This time, I was sure. And not only that, this was a Lady Macbeth that was just a hop skip and a jump away from total madness, I could tell that too. I’m quite positive my presence didn’t help matters. Maybe it’s just because I’ve played Lady Macbeth, but I found myself seeing the room through her eyes more than my own. You think you’ve found a moment alone to attempt to interpret all the craziness going on in your life – you convinced your husband to commit murder, and the consequences have been both great and terrifying. The guilt is starting to creep in on you when suddenly the door to your bed opens and in walks — well, Jessie Bear, in a fucking terrifying mask. I suddenly cast myself in the show, as the ghost of Banquo or one of the drunken guards; a haunting, have-to-believe-its-not-real reminder of all the harm Lady M had caused. I could see through her eyes that’s what she saw me as, staring horrified as I walked closer to her, sinking into herself and reaching desperately towards me, in search of forgiveness, redemption, or maybe just acknowledgement.
Of course, I know that the actress playing Lady Macbeth was merely reacting to the cool circumstance of one audience member coming in to her space alone. If I had been with a group of people, or if no one had come in, she would have tailored her performance accordingly, but the urgency of the moment was so. goddamn. real that I just can’t help but feel like then, we were both really and truly there. And not there in the sense of the Old Lincoln School in Boston in November ’09, but there, in the Macbeth’s bedroom.
Macbeth entered after that, followed by dozens more spectators, and the couple proceeded to have a lustful, tragic dance as everyone watched. I watched, too, but I also took a deep breath, recovering from the intensity of my more private moment before. When the Macbeths dashed out of the room, I felt absolutely no need to follow them, opting instead to sit quietly on their bed. The rest of the audience high tailed it out of there to follow the fleeting, poetic narrative, and once again I found myself alone.
And that’s when it hit me: I was alone in the Macbeth’s bedroom. I apologize in advance for the profanities, but they’re necessary to convey the excitement that surged through me in that moment: I was alone in the motherfucking Macbeths motherfucking bedroom! And once again, it wasn’t a set and I wasn’t a spectator; it was real. It was really their bedroom and by some amazing metaphysical miracle I had been transported there. Again, maybe this is just because I played Lady Macbeth (if unsuccessfully), but for me this was a particularly significant moment. I felt the need to capture it, keep it. So, naturally, I stole something.
I’ve never stolen anything in my life, and hope never to do so again, but something came over me in that moment and the only way to assuage it (besides finding an unsuspecting actor and screaming in their faces, perhaps), was to attempt to clutch this magical space and time and never let go. There was an envelope on the ground, ripped open, with the words “Lady Macbeth” typewritten on the front. It had contained her “They met me in the day of success” note. I put it in my pocket. Sacrilegious? Probably. But somehow I feel the Macbeths would approve of sacrilegious. After all, they are the most notoriously evil couple in literature.
Sleep No More was a trip. It was thrilling and scary and beautiful and chaotic and breathtaking and electrifying and wondrous and overwhelming and frantic and exquisite and enchanting. And while I could sit here and continue to list synonyms for “thrilling” that I find on thesaurus.com, I realize that will in no way help to convey the experience. Plus, after a solid three thousand one hundred fifty six words (and counting) of this review, if by any miracle there is a single reader still with me, you deserve a break anyway.
And, just as I predicted, I am disappointed in my inability to convey with words even one iota of the experience I had seeing the show. But, just like really good theater, this one was all about the moment. (Plus it’s not like you can blame me: they didn’t have any words in the show, anyway.)