You step off an elevator and enter a world that challenges your sanity. Around you lives a mass of rooms, characters and ‘monsters’- a testament to fear, jealousy, the depths of human emotion, and the influence of the supernatural. As you proceed from room to room, and floor to floor, you find stories playing out on all sides: a fallen king seeks revenge against his murderer; dead lovers dance at the whim of a sensual coven; a nurse trapped in a forest of the damned, waiting the arrival of the ‘hangman’; a sister, seeking her only family, makes a deal with a ‘devil’ in red; and a plethora of divergent stories of lost love, madness and depravity. The twists and turns take hold, leading you to one, final moment of excess and betrayal- a blood orgy that draws the curtain on all you have seen and done.
Sound like the plot to the latest atmospheric, survival horror epic? Well this is no game, my friends. This is “Sleep No More,” the latest creation from UK theatre group Punchdrunk, and it is an exercise in fully immersive, interactive storytelling.
Sleep No More is equal parts story and setting, a blend of Shakespeare, Hitchcock, David Lynch and 1940s Americana. From the moment you enter the “restored McKittrick Hotel,” you are immersed in the glamour and aura of a world long-gone. But that initial shock only lasts a short time, as you are whisked behind a curtain, given a mask, and set loose on five floors brimming with shadows, smells, dim light and memories of a world long gone.
Though ostensibly based on “Macbeth,” the timeless “Scottish play” by the Bard, there is far more to Sleep No More than watching actors recite dialogue. In fact, there is no dialogue to speak of, throughout the 3+ hours of performance. The “audience” is given free reign to roam the halls, play with the scenery, read the books, rummage through drawers and even “play a part” in creating a moody world that they warn “may be too intense” for some. This becomes apparent to the select few chosen for “one on one” scenes: whisked away behind closed doors to interact with actors and discover more about the tales playing out. Remember to breathe if you are chosen, because the whispered secrets might be too tantalizing to “miss.”
In addition to the meticulous setting, the producers rely on music to set the tone for scenes and rooms, drawn from a rich pool of mid 20th century jazz and big band. Anyone familiar with Bioshock will recognize the songs of Glenn Miller and the Inkspots, alongside Peggy Lee, Bernard Herrmann’s film scores, Artie Shaw’s jazz and Al Bowlly’s ballads (though be aware, there is one scene where “antique” tunes are replaced by a high tempo “rave,” if one can find it).
In fact, anyone who has played Bioshock might find themselves transported back to a Rapture of sorts: Sleep No More has the same feel of a rundown, former utopia lost to the ravages of time and neglect, albeit without wandering Big Daddies (though creepy little sisters aren’t entirely out of the question). The atmosphere is so strikingly similar at times, that the urge to proceed carefully and check every corner and cabinet becomes overwhelming…but also yields fruitful surprises hidden away from plain sight.
Approaching a world as monumental as the McKittrick is challenging. Does one explore every nook and cranny carefully, looking for hidden clues? Or do they follow certain key actors around, watching their every move and attempting to decipher the wordless scenes and dances that replace the dialogue. Since the entire play is performed thrice over the evening, it’s fully possible to shadow multiple people and see each arc to fruition, before the denoument ends with death and revenge. Given that there are more stories going around than just Macbeth (especially on the 4th floor “town” of Gallow’s Green), time budgeting becomes an issue, especially if one arrives “late” to the party and has to quickly acquaint themselves with the rapidly changing environment.
But it must be noted that there is no “proper” way to explore this experiment in interactive theatre: each person dictates their own experience, and no experience is incorrect. Given the massive scope and breadth of the McKittrick and its denizens, it’s impossible to NOT find something intriguing going on. The sheer attention to detail alone is worth the price of a ticket, and the chills running down your spine as you navigate darkened hallways is far more satisfying than any horror film or video game. There are “quests” one can unlock, if they are crafty enough to find them; countless one-on-one scenes awaiting the curious, or simply the lucky; and hidden rooms and scenes that simply require one to be in the right place, at the right time. “Fortune favors the bold” on this trip, and favors it well. You never know what will come in handy later, or who will react to what “trigger.”
And when all is said and done, you leave the establishment with a sense of satisfaction rarely found in modern entertainment. You also get to keep the mask. I have 4, one of which is covered in “blood.”
Sleep No More is running until March, at 530 W. 27th Street in Manhattan. Ticket information can be found here. Book early, in terms of both date and time.