Sunday, September 21, 2014

Broadway Alternatives - Sleep No More

   Much of theater in New York is easily divided into categories. Is your theater larger than 500 seats? Then it's a Broadway theater. Between 100 and 499 seats? Well, that's Off-Broadway. Smaller still is Off-Off-Broadway. There's lots of different styles of plays performed on these stages, from Shakespeare to Disney. But what if the theater doesn't have seats? What if the performers don't speak? What if the audience can move and observe whatever they like? There's no category for that. But it's called Sleep No More.
Photo courtesy of Sleep No More

 Sleep No More is the most unique, big-budget, theater experience in New York. "Experience" is the key word in describing the production. This is not simply a play you watch, but an entire world to get sucked into and explore. The production takes place sprawling across five floors of an old industrial building in Chelsea, just west of the High Line Park. The space once held all kinds of high-gloss dance clubs since the 90s, but has now been entirely converted to the performance space. The show is produced by an English company called Punchdrunk, that specializes in creating immersive theatrical worlds. Punchdrunk has renamed the building the McKittrick Hotel, and that's where the action takes place.
   It's hard to describe the vibe of the McKittrick. The setting seems to be sometime in the 1920s, though the exact era is hard to pin down. Jazz drifts across the rooms and theater smoke fills the air. The performance is meant to be experienced silently. And guests arriving together are told to split up to experience the show on their own so that your explorations and experiences are unique. And everyone in the audience receives a white mask to distinguish them from the performers and to hide the expressions of the watchers. It's tempting to call the McKittrick haunted. It often has that feel, though there's never anything designed to make you start or scream. There are rooms of old banquet halls, the hotel lobby, jazz clubs and others that all feel abandoned and decaying. Chairs are stacked, tarpaulin draped over shelves and cases. The main hotel spaces are filled with the same dread as the empty hotel in The Shining. But there are other rooms as well. Some evoke medical experiments gone awry. Others evoke pagan or satanic influence. Some just look like the fever dreams of twisted minds. But all through the performance the McKittrick has a feeling that something tragic and disturbing has happened here. And all the time there is a soundtrack of droning, foreboding music, occasionally interrupted by distant jazz. The rooms are even different temperatures and humidity depending on the mood of the space.
   Throughout the McKittrick, there are unmasked performers moving along the story. Ostensibly, the story is a retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth. But you would have to be very familiar with the source material and have the ability to be on six or more places at once to actually follow the story. There is no dialogue and scenes take place simultaneously all over the building. There's actually a modern dance element to the performance as each scene is silent and the action consists of highly choreographed movements, rooted in a kind of non-rhythmic dance. The scenes play out in dreamy motion, the only sound the droning and daunting music. The actors move from room to room, floor to floor. The audience often follows along to try to keep up with the action. Often audience members  become part of the the action with the performers locking their eyes on that of an audience member. I even saw one audience member taken into a room by a performer and the door locked behind them. But even more enjoyable than following the story is to explore the rooms. Throughout the whole night, there was a sense of being inside the world of an eerie and twisted film. The dramatic lighting and incredible set design took you out of one reality and into another. By taking time alone to explore, and even opening trunks and drawers and whatever else you can find, you become soaked in the world of the story. And at the end, all are brought to the ballroom where the finale plays out. And finally, you emerge back into the dreamy jazz lounge you began in, now, at last, swinging with life.

   The show was originally conceived to be very temporary and was only intended to last a few months. But huge buzz and sold out shows kept extending the production so that now it feels open-ended. In fact, the McKittrick's offerings have been expanded to include two nightlife spaces that aren't part of the show at all. One is the rooftop bar and small plate restaurant Gallow Green. The other is the restaurant/lounge/music venue The Heath. Gallow Green is a fantastically charming roof garden with overflowing plants and greenery to mark the different areas and a fine selection of wine, beer, and cocktails. It's great on a summer night. But my favorite part was The Heath. It's reminiscent of a lounge in a train depot of a finer era. Some of the tables are even set up like a dining car. The restaurant tables were moved away after 11 to make way for the house band, The Heathens, who got the audience dancing with hours of funky, pulsing tunes. Both spaces are not part of Sleep No More so anyone can head over for an evening out. Happily, I found getting in around 11 on a Friday was no problem. There was a line but it moved quickly and there didn't seem to be anyone being turned away.

  Sleep No More might not be for everyone. There were even audience members during my show who seemed to have stopped caring and were just sitting around. But if you're willing to think of the show not as a story, but as a chance to explore a fully realized and evocative world in which the story takes place, you'll have a theater experience you won't forget.

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