There I was on a Saturday night, elbowing strangers out of the way so I could get a better view of Lady Macbeth and her lover performing bedroom gymnastics.
Thirty minutes later, I was dashing down a dim corridor after a very pregnant and absurdly nimble Lady Macduff, just in time to witness her (spoiler?) violent murder.
It’s all part of a typical visit to the historic McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street, which British theatRE company Punchdrunk has transformed into a mind-bogglingly detailed set for its production of Sleep No More, loosely based off of works by Shakespeare and Daphne du Maurier.
Like no “play” you’ve seen before, Sleep No More invites guests to explore as much of its five-story, 100-room labyrinth as will fit in three hours. You’re welcome to leaf through yellowed medical tomes inauspiciously dog-eared to a section on “Pus,” scramble over crumbling brick enclosures in a shadowy sculpture garden, and even sample the Communion wafers set out in glass bowls in the infirmary, though I wouldn’t recommend it.
Sooner or later you’ll cross paths with one of the actors who inhabit this otherworldly realm, each more attractive and often less clothed than the last, and who all have dual degrees in Parkour Acrobatics and Emoting Wordlessly With Their Eyes (the entire performance has less than five minutes of scripted text).
With multiple story lines and at least fifteen different characters, chances are high, almost guaranteed, that you won’t see everything. Repeat visits are encouraged and quite common among fervent fans, though with tickets close to $100 a pop, not a luxury many can afford.
The scene generally regarded as “can’t miss” doesn’t disappoint: an orgy rave featuring a blood-covered baby; enough strobe lighting to induce a seizure; and a fully nude, save for an enormous goat headpiece, male dancer.
The crux of the whole experience, though, is that all audience members have to don a Phantom of the Opera meets Ducktales style carnival mask.
The voyeuristic implications of slipping behind this veil of anonymity is where things get interesting. In playing off our visceral attraction to sex, violence, and other “base” spectacles, Sleep No More treads tried and true territory. Its conceit lies in giving us an excuse to indulge our rubbernecking inclinations in public, and in a highbrow artistic setting no less.
And indulge we do. Prepare to have your toes stepped on once or twice as people vie for prime viewing spots. At times the jostling gets so heated, audience members have been known to flip each other the finger.
For the boldest of the bold, there are several opportunities to follow one of the actors behind locked doors where the scene continues one-on-one. In my case, things got extra meta when the character I was pursuing proceeded to remove my mask. After scrutinizing someone for the better part of an hour from behind the refuge of a disguise, to be suddenly exposed and forced to meet her reciprocating gaze was one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever experienced.
At the end of the three hours, I was left with many more questions than answers: Who was the woman in the photograph the young girl was searching for? Why did the scarlet witch want the girl’s tears? What was the point of the red-headed guy’s lengthy tango with a door? Why was everyone kissing everyone in the banquet scene?
If you’re the kind of person who likes to know what’s happening at every second, this is probably not the show for you. But if you can accept and immerse yourself in its disjointed flow, Sleep No More will astound you for what it is: a tour de force of human creativity and the purest psychological escape you’ll find outside of your dreams.