Sleep No More
Macbeth lives in a haunted hotel near the Hudson River.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. At least, I felt as though I was dreaming through most of Emursive and Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, a massive environmental adaptation of Macbeth set in a ghostly Jazz Age hotel. That would be the McKittrick, a sprawling complex on West 27th Street designed specifically for the show. Since opening their doors in 2011, the proprietors have added a restaurant (the Heath) and a rooftop bar (Gallow Green). The latter is a great spot for pre-show drinks, or just to hang out if you're not seeing the show. The play is still the thing, however, that draws people to this spooky corner of Manhattan.
Having loved the show on previous visits, I hesitated to return, knowing how a production tends to sag and creak with age. I am happy to report that, five years on, Sleep No More is still as bewitching as ever, the gold standard of immersive theater. In fact, it remains the best show in New York owing to a combination of imagination of rigorous execution.
That is clear from the moment you step up to the front desk and the concierge hands you your room key: a playing card. After a trip down a narrow and winding hall, you land in Manderley, a dimly lit bar populated by Scotch-swilling and flirtatious hosts. From there we are handed white Venetian masks and instructed to wear them for the entirety of the show. The bellhop takes us into the elevator, distributing guests on various floors and breaking up groups: Sleep No More is an individual journey and guests are encouraged to travel alone in silence.
After wandering the space for a bit, you will start to notice unmasked characters storming down the hallways and ducking behind walls. You may even feel the urge to follow them, although that is entirely your choice. Directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle have ingeniously staged the play in real time, with action happening in multiple rooms simultaneously. You can never see the whole thing in one visit, but overall it loosely tells the story of Macbeth, Shakespeare's tale of a Scottish thane who commits regicide at the urging of his ambitious wife and three fortune-telling witches. As the Macbeths plot in their bedroom, King Duncan retires from the party. The other thanes get drunk downstairs and the witches wander the halls, causing mischief. The biggest variable is the audience, untethered to seats and embedded in the play. Underscored by Stephen Dobbie's heart-pounding sound design, Sleep No More is the closest you can come to being inside a video game.
The set design (by Barrett, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns) is wonderfully baroque, featuring six floors and 100 rooms full of dark corners and little details: Open books and scattered letters provide clues (and red herrings) to the plot; a fully stocked candy store invites us to taste; we can feel the texture of the floor change from tile to stone to dirt as we move from room to intricately designed room. David Israel Reynoso's costumes are a gorgeous synthesis of American gothic shabby and F. Scott Fitzgerald chic. Blood and sweat soak the men's tuxedo shirts as the evening progresses. This is a show to take in with all five senses, driven forward by a gutsy and committed cast.
Maxine Doyle's athletic choreography is strenuous (even brutal), recalling the work of Pilobolus and Elizabeth Streb. The dancers climb walls, rip doors off their hinges, and smash bricks in the cemetery (yes, it's a hotel with a cemetery). Everyone goes full-out, with some performances even better than I remembered.
For example, Joseph Poulson's portrayal of Macbeth is unforgettable. A case study in guilt, he oscillates between rage and self-flagellation in confronting his ambitious wife (a sexy and seductive Emily Terndrup). After several moments of brooding over the sight of the happy Duncan (a regal Phil Atkins) dancing in the ballroom, Macbeth resolves to kill him. As he quietly smothers the King, he looks away, as if that will somehow absolve him. Naked in the bathtub, he attempts to wash the blood away, staining the porcelain in the process. We see a terrible realization slowly overwhelm him in this moment: No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas in incarnadine.
He doesn't utter these words, but he doesn't need to. The staging and performances silently evoke the text. The actors in Sleep No More rarely speak, and when they do it is usually to whisper a cryptic line in the ear of a singular audience member. Words are a garnish, not the main course in this immersive dance drama, ensuring that it can be enjoyed by people who don't even speak English.
While everything about Sleep No More has been impressively maintained over the last five years, there was one element that was starkly different from my earlier visits: Now, smartphone glow occasionally illuminates faces in the crowd. Clandestine photos are taken. The words of our hotel staff repeat in Snapchat's irritating echo. Too many audience members are so busy scrupulously documenting their experience to be actually engaged in it. This is an awful shame for a show that is so completely about sensory presence. The good news is that the show is still there and in mint condition, waiting for a discerning and worthy audience — perhaps someone like you.