At 'Sleep No More,' toil, trouble, yet reward
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NEW YORK -- New York City, like any other urban environment, is in a constant state of flux, where neighborhoods can rise and fall like mini-empires. To those in the know, the latest area to emerge from the rubble is Far West Chelsea.
It already was the locale of the Starrett-Leigh Building, with tenants such as Martha Stewart, Hugo Boss, Club Monaco (a retailer owned by Polo Ralph Lauren) and iconic luxury book publisher Assouline.
This year, the city cut the ribbon on the local leg of the High Line, something akin to a pedestrian freeway. And the Hotel Americano, an uber-chic building designed by Mexican architect Enrique Norten, opened its doors between 10th and 11th avenues.
Across the street from the hotel is the Paul Kasmin Gallery, where a dozen bronze animal heads by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei glare from behind the glass facade. It symbolizes the neighborhood's burgeoning reputation for art galleries and clubs.
Next door to the Hotel Americano is the "McKittrick Hotel," site of what may be New York's hottest theater ticket, "Sleep No More." Constructed from an abandoned warehouse space by production company Emursive and a British physical theater group named Punchdrunk, the five-floor "hotel" becomes a virtual playground for a deconstructed version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." Nothing is as it seems and, to that end, the group created a faux history for the hotel:
Built in 1939, the McKittrick was a victim of the financial bust due to the onset of World War II. Unable to pay off its debt, it closed within the year and was eventually sold. And there it sat, virtually dormant, until now. It is the eerie environment for this "Macbeth," transporting the Elizabethan play to a "modern" era just coming out of a severe depression.
Don't expect familiar lines from the wordsmith Shakespeare -- much of "Sleep No More" is conducted in silence. Even the mobile audience, clad in white masks, is instructed not to speak. But for those knowledgeable of the Bard's play, everything is there, whether to be found in the scenery or in a song or a handwritten letter.
While a familiarity with the play may help, it isn't necessary because "Sleep" becomes its own entity. Most striking is the production design. The audience is escorted into a bar and assigned into groups, depending on the value of a playing card that is handed to each person.
An elevator man subdivides the group further, depositing clumps of people on various floors. There they can explore "Sleep's" maze of rooms at their own pace, skulking like ghosts. The devil is in the sumptuous details, you might say, with bedrooms and drawing rooms and a ballroom, plus something like a pharmacy, draped from the ceiling with dried herbs, and a detective agency filled with drawers, all 100 of them cast in a deliriously spooky glow.
Take your time, have a seat at a desk and read Lady Macbeth's letter. Or watch her wash the blood from Macbeth in a bathtub.
They call it immersion theater, where audience members come face-to-face and sometimes interact with the characters. Some Pittsburghers may recall the Spanish group Teatro de los Santidos at the International Festival of Firsts in 2008. Each patron got an admission time, 15 minutes apart, and was led on a personal encounter, much like Orpheus in his underworld.
"Sleep No More" elevates that idea to another level. At the McKittrick, viewers take responsibility for their own theatrical experience. Through chance encounter, they may stumble upon a scene from the play, then choose to follow any one of the characters to another room. So the audience determines its own fate.
It all becomes a sort of "Danse Macabre," beginning slowly, almost tentatively as the audience feels its way around the unearthly surroundings. An ever-present soundscape heightens the atmosphere.
As for the dance itself, the most fitting parts are theatrical, character-driven and woven into the fabric of "Macbeth's" story, among other sundry inspirations. Sometimes the characters reach out and touch and it's all deliciously voyeuristic. But the few real dances show nothing new nor do they touch base with either historic era.
The tempo begins to pick up as the evening progresses, swirling faster and faster in a drama of its own making. The characters start to fly out of the room, sending people dashing up and down the stairwell, hearts racing and in pursuit of -- we know not what.
It's not often you feel a sense of danger in the theater.
Somehow everyone seems to gather, without prompting, in the ballroom for the final scene. Glancing around at the hundreds of white masks, all intent on the banquet table, it was then that you realize that you, too, have been a member of the cast.
First Published December 21, 2011 12:00 am