Attend the immersive theater experience of Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel in New York and you just might actually sleep no more.It’s already dark outside when my husband and I exit the subway at 23rd Street in Manhattan and walk west in search of the McKittrick Hotel. When we arrive at the correct address, we notice a small plaque on the building that would have led us to believe that this was an actual hotel, had we not known otherwise. In reality, it’s a block of warehouses we will spend the next few hours wandering through to experience the site-specific theatrical performance Sleep No More. A collaboration between Emursive and the British theatre company Punchdrunk, the show — if you can call it that — opened here in 2011 and is based loosely on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. No words are spoken by the actors or the audience, and all guests are required to wear masks while inside the performance space.
When we enter the hotel, the coat-check girl takes all of our personal belongings, including my purse. It feels strange to hand over my bag containing my wallet and cellphone, but I decide to just go with it — after all, it’s clear this isn’t going to be some ordinary sit-in-your-seat-with-your-hands-folded type of performance. After walking through a dark corridor, we enter a lounge called the Manderley Bar that evokes a 1920s jazz club. While other audience members sip cocktails infused with absinthe, we wait for the number on the card we’d been handed to be called. When it’s our turn, we are ushered into a small waiting area and given white, plastic masks with long beaks similar to the ones donned by plague doctors.
“From here on out no words are to be spoken. No words!” says our hostess, a glamorous film noir blonde in a floor-length, backless evening gown. Along with the other masked audience members, we step silently into an elevator before the operator ceremoniously closes the doors.
Grasping the hand of my husband, Luke, I’m excited but trepidatious about the evening’s activities. Will we be separated from one another? Will we somehow be pulled into the performance? The elevator doors open, and people exit. Just as I’m about to follow suit, the actor playing the elevator operator blocks my way and shuts the doors to take us to a different floor. As it turns out, the entire performance takes place throughout five floors, which we are invited to explore at our own pace. “The mask really suits you,” the operator whispers creepily to me when we are finally permitted to exit.
As a child, I was a fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books because I liked the idea that a flip of the page could have a profound effect on my destiny. It’s the same with Sleep No More — turn left and enter one room, and you’ll begin one journey. But turn right and follow an actor as he marches up a flight of stairs to a different floor, and your experience will be completely different. Following the twisting hallways and rooms unfolding before us, we stumble upon a strange nursery, an infirmary complete with patient logs that we rifle through and a banquet hall where cast members dine in a stylized tableau akin to The Last Supper. Luke grabs my hand as we immerse ourselves in this alternate reality. We visit more rooms, pulling back bedsheets, reading notes left on side tables and marveling at the taxidermy. At one point, I see a nude woman frantically bathing (perhaps Lady Macbeth?); in another, a man dresses after taking a shower. While some audience members form packs and charge after the actors as they move about the hotel, we instead decide to observe a few scenes and make our own way through the confusing hallways, never quite sure where we are going or where we will end up.
From a bloody bathtub to a doctor’s examination table that looks like some sort of medieval torture device, the set pieces are intricately detailed and contribute to the anxiety that hangs heavy around us. Stumbling upon (astonishingly enough) a labyrinthlike forest that appears out of nowhere only adds to our jittery apprehension. However, in a fascinating twist, the mood combined with the cloak of anonymity (thank you, masks) leads to a certain amount of liberation — and watching the audience members’ behavior soon becomes one of the most interesting aspects of the evening. As a well-muscled actor performs an interpretative movement, a seemingly plain-looking woman in a mask, a pullover and khakis boldly steps into the scene and joins him. She literally inserts herself into the action. In a different room, another masked audience member faces off with a barkeep, staring at him as if he is trying to see his soul — or at least his deepest, darkest secrets. It’s troubling because it is so intimate yet so public. One female audience member disobeys the rules (she lifts up her mask) and finds herself ejected back to the Manderley Bar. Later I overheard her bragging to her friends that she was pulled from the performance space, and I couldn’t help but think she had come here with intent to provoke.
I, too, am just as caught up in the voyeuristic behavior. Following an actress into a room set up as an office, I lean over her shoulder to spy in plain view as she writes a message in fancy script and answers a call. Because I’m not sure how her poetic message or the urgency of the call factors into the plot of the “show,” I follow the impulse to view the situation and the person in an intimate way, discarding the veil of politeness that usually buffers human interactions.
Luke and I spend a few more hours marching up and down the stairs of the McKittrick, our legs becoming sore as we get lost and repeatedly stumble upon different scenes like this. Along the way, we quickly learn to get out of the actors’ way or risk being pushed over or shoved aside.
As we arrive in the ballroom, a choreographed dance is taking place. Luke and I look at each other, sweating beneath our masks, and wordlessly decide it is time to leave. But checking out isn’t as easy as checking in. After several laps through this bizarre mansion, we finally signal one of the black-clad guides stationed throughout the hotel to lead us out and back to the bar area.
Later that night, back in the world of normalcy, it hits me: This might not have been a play in the sense that there was a beginning, a middle and an end (the actors repeat the same scenes throughout the night as new guests enter the hotel), but once I gave up on trying to suss out the storyline, I enjoyed my evening. You just have to accept it for what it is — a sensual, scary and pleasingly uncomfortable experience that just might end up haunting your dreams.