By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn May 4, 2011 at 12:00PM
Art, particularly when it takes the form of a story, typically encourages a passive experience; the sensational interactive theater production "Sleep No More" works against that tendency. Loosely adapted from "Macbeth," the traveling show is currently housed at a warehouse in Chelsea, where it has been held over through June due to the hugely positive reception. I finally got a chance to try it out last Friday.
Produced by the British theater company Punchdrunk, "Sleep No More" moves the "Macbeth" plot into the jazz age, sets it in the creepy interiors of the former McKittrick Hotel, bathes each room in ominous shadows and fills it with suspenseful Hitchcock motifs. Every member of the audience must wear a foreboding white mask while exploring through the eerie complex, roaming from room to room in search of a narrative. Actors, generally engaged in various forms of interpretative dance, come and go. Following one character may take you to a new scene, but the entire world of the story is available for scrutiny. Narrative conventions tell us that we must watch to learn, and "Sleep No More" eloquently toys with that instinct: There's nothing stranger than watching a horde of white masks hustle after a bewitched woman in an evening dress. But the clever ones will wander.
In various rooms, you'll find letters signed by Macbeth and his wife, phone books littered with possibly usable digits, half-eaten jelly sandwiches, and other curiosities. While Lady Macbeath steps out of a bathtub in her birthday suit, check out her correspondence with her power-hungry husband by rifling through the papers on the floor by her feet. Take a sharp right turn and find yourself in a graveyard. Whatever you do, keep moving. It's impossible to comprehend "Sleep No More" from a stationary perspective. Few entertainments these days make such active demands on the imagination and the body at once. Don't miss out.
Here's a tip, though: Go alone, or plan to split up. Wandering around this three-floor establishment requires solitary investigation; you can't comment on what you discover when you discover it, so coordinating with your friends detracts from the capacity to take it all in. The production demands that you feel lost. Actors occasionally acknowledge the presence of the audience with a subtle tap on the shoulder or a seductive stare, but only fleetingly. Watching them go about their mystical ways emphasizes the ghostly nature of all spectatorship. Of course, with its magical qualities and avant garde performance techniques, "Sleep No More" intentionally lacks coherence, leaving me wondering if more accessible stories could benefit from a similar approach. (Imagine a house, for example, in which a different act of "The Godfather" takes place on every floor.)
When I had a minute to gather my thoughts in between the rooms of the hotel, I was reminded of a recent conversation with Werner Herzog in which he talked about an audience's "inner space to create a parallel story…a different story that may depart from what you see." Our imagination naturally expands on the information presented to us, which is why narrative conventions are usually so clean, leaving little room for ambiguity so that everyone has more or less the same experience. "Sleep No More" is a rejection of that mentality, relying on one's imagination to piece together the tattered narrative. Going into it, people expect a ride. "This is like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory," I heard someone say as he put on his mask. And then the deep silence began. Punchdrunk engages with the more frightening elements of the Macbeth tale by turning it into an organic, three-dimensional universe. Shakespeare doesn't live, but his characters do.
At the end of the two-hour period allotted for exploring the building, patrons arrive back at the hotel lobby, where a jazz band plays and drinks are served. "I feel like I just woke up," a newly unmasked audience member muttered. As for my companion and I, we stumbled out to the cold Chelsea streets and eventually found our way to a noodle joint, where we dined in silence. Our minds were numb. The story had ended, but the spell lived on. It haunts me still.