Friday, August 12, 2011

The real life afterlife: Sleep No More

"Sleep No More"three hours' worth of orgies, murders, love-making, and ghosts, often astutely choreographed to dance and performed across three abandoned warehouses on West 27th Street in Manhattandemands, or, rather, pleas to be seen. It's a spine-chilling rendition of Macbeth, brimming with emotion, that twists the conceit of Shakespeare until it is barely recognizable, and instead replaces it with an intricately built world of horror and superhuman, phantasmagorical actors that frequently disappear from stage in front of your very eyes.  

The show's format affirms a universal truth: freedom is king. The actors play out their roles, moving from bedroom to ballroom, fleeing from the 1st floor to the 5th, and the viewers (that's me and you) decide whether to follow, stay and wait, or leave to find an entirely different plot line. There are 11 actors across 5 floors; while they unite for specific scenes, there's enough separation that two viewers can follow two different actors and come away with entirely divergent experiences.

For less talented production companies, allowing the audience to wander around during a play can be ticket-box suicide. But for Punchdrunk, the British site-specific theater company enacting "Sleep No More," allowing the audience to break from the story line is their vote of confidence surrounding the set. It is beautifully rendered. Every roomand there are over 50is distinctly constructed: an eerie baby's room, with an overhead mobile dangling 40 burlap-cloth dolls; a hospital infirmary with 10 bathtubs of rusted spigots and dirty porcelain lined up in two rows; a forest of dead winter trees shielding a spectral goat balancing on a Roman alter, back-lit with fluorescent blue light. Many of the rooms are never entered by the actors; Punchdrunk expects the viewer to leave the play and explore on his own.

Personally, I experienced an emotional roller-coaster that can be summarized in broad sweeps. The first ten minutes were characterized by intrigue: I walked through a narrow, nearly pitch-black maze and ended up in an ethereal jazz bar. The playing card I was handed upon arrival (I had a 2 of spades) determined my on-boarding order. I was given a white Venetian carnival-style mask and told there was no more talking. In the elevator, the doorman cut the group off, and let us out in packs of 5 to 6 on each floor.

The second twenty minutes were characterized by anxiety and fright. I was let off in the graveyard, which, with its decaying headstones, archangels of death, and real dirt, was so visceral and daunting I was waiting for the moment when I'd be hit over the head and dragged into the dark pit behind me. It's hard to emphasize how terrifying the set appears upon entrance the first time. It's insanely real: the air blowing on my face felt natural, bedspreads looked and felt lived-in, and minute details like books and buttons are nailed so specifically that if there weren't EXIT signs everywhere, I would have truly believed I was there.

The next hour and a half is about exploration. Because of the otherworldly design aspect of the set, I quickly left the story lines I stumbled into and walked through all five floors, touching and prodding and tip-toeing into each room. The adrenaline flowed most freely walking through empty hallways and perusing empty rooms. With over 200 other viewers, someone was usually rummaging with me. But when nobody was present, I could hear the tinkling silence, felt the darkness' gravitational pull, trembled at the absurd-but-then-highly-believable notion that an inanimate object would come alive and beat me unconscious or a hooded figure would tape my mouth and drag me into a sinkhole.

The last hour and a half is about empathy. While exploring, I discovered Macbeth in a hotel lobby, beating a pregnant woman to death. I was intrigued. I told myself I'd follow him for 5 minutesand ended up tailing him until the end of the play, through his bedroom, the hotel lobby, the forest, and his banquet. Macbetheither Eric Bradley, Nicholas Bruder, or Luke Murphyhad superhuman stamina and concentration. Unlike a regular play, where actors can rest between acts, I saw Macbeth shave, get dressed, prepare for bed in-between his "real" acts, where he murdered, had sex, danced. The entire time, I was an arm lengths' away.

At 2 a.m., I left the theater. I wasn't a changed man. My worldview didn't develop. There wasn't even a stronger urge to watch more theater or opera. But I did leave with a sense of light-headed ecstasy. The three hours I spent were more immersive than the best movie, video game, or play. Combined. For days afterwards, I feasted on the mental ambrosia of my experience. The emotion etched on the actors' faces, from despair to mirth, was a projection of my ambiguous, undefined subconscious into reality. "Sleep No More" felt like living out a dream; it's the closest I've come to leaving my body and soul somewhere elsealmost, I'd say, like tasting the afterlife.

P.S. If you need more convincing, I've written more about why you should see it. It's more stream-of-consciousness, with more spoilers. Which one do you like better?

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