I am Sleep No More’s most recent addict, a future repeat customer who likes digging through drawers while humming along to scratchy renditions of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
Two nights ago, a fellow yoga student offered me $40 tickets to the production that can cost upwards of $300. A long-time cast mate, she gets discounted rates for friends and family. I didn’t know much about this show that has been running since 2011. To my ears, it sounded like hipster performance art, a cheesy additive to the already crowded High Line scene of Chelsea, New York. Yet I couldn’t turn down the deal.
I showed up to the McKittrick Hotel in my gym clothes, completely unprepared to check my belongings and enter a darkened passage into the hotel’s smoke-filled Manderley Bar. It took me a moment to catch the reference to the mansion in Rebecca. Once I did, I noticed the bar’s over-the-top expression of 1930s film noir. With my phone secure in the coat check, I was adapting to a new normal of shadows and eerie beauty.
“Can I take my drink into the show?” a patron asked the hostess, a beautiful Ivory soap-skinned woman in a long black dress.
“Only in your stomach,” she cooed, gurgly as a Hitchcock blonde.
Then a very, very tall man in a tuxedo stepped up to a torpedo-shaped microphone to announce “room key numbers.” These numbers on playing cards told us when we could ride the elevator to the “inside,” into five floors of voyeuristic drama.
Inside the freight elevator, a Southern belle named Hazel asked that we wear white plastic masks, similar to the long-nosed numbers favored by medieval doctors during the bubonic plague. What the? We were not to talk for the next three hours, and we were to keep a respectable distance from “the hotel’s residents,” for their safety as well as ours. “Oh, and do be careful.,” Hazel warned, flirting with the attendant. As we began to move, the attendant reminded us of the rules and told us, “This experience rewards the bold.”
When the doors opened, I stepped out in the darkness, suddenly realizing the rest of the group was still on the elevator. I tried to turn back, but the doors closed, leaving me in a dim hallway. Ah, geeze.
So I started entering rooms, the first being a bedroom with several hospital beds. Like other white-masked people in the scene, I peered through nightstands, where I found flower petals in one and pencil shavings in another. These details, surgically precise, unsettled me. The next room featured several institutional bathtubs. One was filled with water all the way to the top. In another room, I found an antique case filled with meticulously displayed teeth. When a nurse passed me, I thought I would jump out of my skin.
One floor down, I was starting to wonder if I was in a well-known play. The environment had an obsessive compulsive focus, but I couldn’t put my finger on the theme. In the tailor’s shop, my eyes adjusted to the dark to identify wooden thimble cases, one after the other, along the entire wall space. My dad, who loves collections as a decorating strategy, would have dug all the clocks, scissors, and neatly arranged artifacts. The walls of the detective agency were lined with all sorts of envelopes, from floor to ceiling. Here in the office, I sorted through files and tested the temperature of a cup of tea. The desk phone rang. Should I answer it?
But then a gentleman entered the office, picked up the phone, and began writing a letter with hurricane intensity. Several patrons in white masks leaned in to watch him write. When the gentleman got up to leave, his swift gait made most of the others run after him. I stayed behind to read the letter, from Malcolm to Macduff.
Aha! This was Macbeth, the “Scottish Play” I vaguely remembered from high school English.
In the stairwell of the third floor, I saw a bloody handprint. When I entered a majestic bedroom and saw a gorey naked man get into a bathtub, I knew I was meeting Macbeth himself, all of Macbeth. He had a tattoo on his lower back and total freedom in front, worth full price admission had I paid it. Also, he was a great modern dancer. Lady Macbeth washed him and later gyrated in a trance on the picture window. This wasn’t some haunted house attraction with amateur ghosts; these were seasoned artists.
On one of the lower floors, Hecate, queen of the witches, slowly ate red meat in a silver platter while while looking deeply into a patron’s eyes. Her red dress spiraled around her feet. When she gagged on a bone and put the shard into her napkin, I was mesmerized by how she re-applied her red lipstick. She was so striking I could have watched her read a subway map. I left the room when she gathered up her skirts to lip sync to “Is That All There Is?” sung by a man. Sometimes, all the oddities got to be too much.
Thoroughly weirded out, I wandered downstairs to the first floor to meet the woman from yoga class who now called herself Stella Sinclair. In spit curls and cinematic makeup, she was barely recognizable, but she noticed me right away and introduced me to other characters in the Manderley Bar. Never breaking character, she brought me a prosecco and sat me at a tiny round table topped with a reserved sign. When she sang “You Can’t Take That Away from Me,” I was impressed with her command as a musician. She was curvy and breathtaking with a witty delivery. As I sang along, a woman in a mink coat waved at me and continued to play cards by herself. I felt like I was in a video game.
“Did you see a bad man inside?” Stella asked after the song.
“I’ve seen many,” I said.
“Go up two flights of steps,” she said. “There’s something you will want to see.”
So I did, but the tall ceilings were so disorienting I couldn’t keep track of the flights. Ah, screw it. I walked into the taxidermist shop and saw a strange guy (the elevator attendant from earlier) analyzing a bone on a glass countertop. His groupies followed everything he did. That’s enough, I thought and was almost out into the hall when the actor grabbed me, led me into a bathroom stall, took off my mask, and looked deeply into my eyes. (This was one of the coveted one-on-ones I would later hear about.) I started laughing, ready to clock him on the head if I needed to, but then I realized he was more in danger than I was. I could mess with him easier than he could mess with me in that space. So I went with it. He left me alone in the stall, turned off the lights, ran the sink, and then flicked on sound effects that sounded like a flooding shower. When he came back into the stall, he held a tray of two eyeball-shaped cakes and two syringes. He injected one of the wafers with blue dye and then ate the other, slowly, while staring directly into my soul. When the music became more intense, he grabbed my wrists and whispered Shakespeare in my ear. It was almost intelligible. Finally, he led me out into the main floor where a rave was going on, someone was naked, and a bare-chested man in a rams head was helping to deliver Rosemary’s baby.
The performance climaxed when fewer doors were available for us to open. Staff in black masks directed us to the grand ballroom, where we watched characters interact with each other in a slow-moving banquet that ended in a hanging finessed with A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
Out on the street, I asked an older woman what she thought of the play. She could have been my mom. “Oh, this is our second time,” she said pointing to her husband, who could have been my dad. “We love it. The first time, a nurse put me in a wheelchair.” I told her about my one-on-one, and she seemed jealous. There are blogs detailing how to get these one-on-ones by following characters, which I did not do.
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Shakespeare got a shakeup in "Sleep No More," immersion theater in a creepy hotel. When one of the actors pulled me into a bathroom stall and ate an eyeball in front of me, I thought I needed to re-read my Will, pun intended. P.S. The nudity was great and believable. And we had to wear these masks. #sleepnomore #macbeth #moderndance #chelsea #theater #shakespeare #highline
Not ready to put away my mask, I asked Hazel if she would take a selfie with me. She stood in the doorway, poised between the elegant Manderley and the trendy buzz of 28th Street. She was nibbling on a donut hole that a passerby gave her. “I’m not allowed,” she drawled sadly. “I will burst into flames.”
So I left her balanced between two worlds, her sparkly backless dress and bobbed hair a contrast to the foot traffic outside the McKittrick Hotel.
As I walked to the train, I saw a cast member speeding ahead of me. Her hair trailed down her back, and she wore a long flowing trench coat that went to her ankles—so modern dance. I followed her.
“You were great!” I called.
“Thanks,” she responded, clearly trying to get away from me.
As I type here in my New York City apartment, trying to sum up my weekend’s theater experience, I see my Remington typewriter and cast iron desk lamp to my left. To my right is a record player. Straight ahead, a magnifying glass rests on my Dumpster-dived end table. A heavy black wall phone, sans dial, ties everything together to say: This chick is spooky (and single). My decorating taste leans creepily toward Sleep No More, and I’m not sure what that says about me.
Still thinking about the swish of long dresses and tender moments with ghosts, I re-read my Shakespeare and found the show’s title line: “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep.’”
And so apropos. He killed sleep for himself and Duncan, one of his early innocent victims. But Lady Macbeth can’t sleep either, at least not lying horizontal in her bed. She sleepwalks and is so tormented by her own guilt that she kills herself.
Beds are important props in Sleep No More, a mindbender of an experience in which no two viewers see the same show. It’s the details that still bounce around in my head: the closets, the suitcases, and cues in lighting and sound. I also loved when an actor sped up, slowed down, and handled an antique with intent. Imagine watching a beautiful character open an old-fashioned umbrella while passing you in the hall. It’s marvelous.
I know this may be unrelated, maybe not, but my Mrs. Claus could take a few pointers from these nutty actors. Props like photo albums and tea pots tell a story all by themselves. Oh, what I could do with a pocket watch or a ring of heavy iron door keys.