I missed Sleep No More when it played in Boston in 2009, under the auspices of the American Repertory Theater. There was a mix-up with my press tickets, and by the time I realized something was amiss, the entire run for the show had already sold out. I was pretty pissed.
I was in New York last weekend to see two shows on Saturday, and when I discovered that Sleep No More has late-night showings on the weekends, I fired up my iPhone to see if I could snag a ticket for late that night. Since Sleep No More is a non-linear show, it doesn't technically "start" at any particular time, and audience members are admitted in waves in 15-minute intervals. Most of the time slots were sold out, but there were still a few tickets left for 11:15 PM, so I was in luck.
Sleep No More, devised by the British theater troupe Punchdrunk as a decidedly revisionist take on Shakespeare's Macbeth, was the talk of the town when it was in Boston, and it has gone on the become quite the hot ticket in New York City as well, with A-list notables donning the creepy white masks that audience members are required to wear at the show, and fumbling their way through the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea. The show was originally supposed to play through May, but it has since been extended to September.
I suppose it was inevitable that, after so much build up, I would ultimately be disappointed with the actual experience of Sleep No More. First, it's a bit overwhelming. When the show played in Boston, it took place at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline, where audience members wandered through some 44 rooms of play area. At the McKittrick, the rooms number about 100. But it doesn't take long to get your bearings once you enter the playing space, and realize that the action of the show tends to take place in only a handful of these rooms.
Once I caught on to the rhythm of the show, I found that, while I admired the inspiration, the effort, and the admittedly spectacular results, I didn't quite find it the transformative experience that so many people made it out to be. There's no question that Sleep No More, which was the brainchild of Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett, is quite different from any other theatrical experience, but I found myself wondering what it was all supposed to mean.
No words are spoken by the cast throughout the show, apart from a few grunts, groans, and periodic interjections. Sleep No More is primarily a visual experience, and I wound up focusing on it as a dance piece. The abundant choreography, by co-director Maxin Doyle, is thrilling and energetic. And Felix Barrett's physical design for the each of the room, and for the overall piece, is an artistic accomplishment unto itself. So, in that sense, the piece also works as an art installation.
But as theater, I'm not so sure. I found the overall experience of the show to be both thrilling and annoying. I came away disappointed that I had missed certain iconic moments that others had described to me. That's both the main asset and the key liability of this kind of theatrical experience: everyone experiences the show slightly differently, and you can't possibly see everything.
I was frustrated, though, that I kept happening upon certain moments multiple times. I saw the dance in the ballroom twice and the banquet scene three times. I saw Lady Macbeth dancing naked in her bedroom/bathroom twice, but I did not happen upon the famed naked goatboy nor the mimetic abortion. I saw Banquo before and after his death, but I didn't catch the death scene. I also saw numerous individual audience members receive private audiences with cast members, but I was never called in for one of those one-on-one sessions. Again, that's both the charm and the nuisance of Sleep No More: every person who attends the show will experience it differently.
If you go, two recommendations. Once you see a cast member walk by, follow that person until he or she takes you to something interesting. Keep following cast members until you get a sense of the space. Then, once you find what appears to be an important room, and you want to take a rest, cop a squat and wait for the story of that space to unfold. The ballroom is an especially good place to hang out, as many events occur there, and there are ample places to sit. There's also Lady Macbeth's bedroom, and various other large chambers. Again, you probably won't see everything, but you'll see enough to get the sense that it isn't about the storyline. It's about atmosphere, choreography, and a whole lot of voyeurism.
Also, you might want to bone up on Macbeth before you head out. It will make it more fun as you identify each of the characters. (e.g. Duncan, Banquo, Macduff, plus Macbeth himself and and Lady M.) Plus, you'll also have fun picking out certain key plot points. ("Wait, why are they moving around all of the trees on wheels...oh, right.")