Sleep No More

I had heard about “Sleep No More”, an off-Broadway show in New York,  a couple years back on the Freakanomics podcast, an episode that discussed how anonymity effects behavoir. As they described the details of “Sleep No More”; guests had to wear masks and could not speak, the actors moved from room to room in a highly detail 5 floor warehouse, I became incredibly intrigued. I knew if we ever traveled to New York, I had to see this show, and last week we did just that.

We arrived at the show early and decided to eat dinner in the restaurant inside the fake hotel the show took place in. From the outside, there are no markings signaling you that you are even in the right place. Luckily, I remembered from the website that The Heath restaurant was part of the “experience”, and spotted a tiny sign outside. They let us in and we took an old-timey, speak-easy style elevator to the four floor. The restaurant was spectacularly themed; smoky, vintage booze bottles behind the bar, a jazz band playing big-band music, and all the wait staff  were dressed in white tuxedos or ball gowns. The whole thing had an ominous tone to it, and really served as a great appetizer to the main show. The food was pretty good too, but very pricey.

When the show begins, a line forms at a nondescript doors back outside the warehouse. You enter into a lobby lit only by candlelight, where you must check your bags and silence phones. You are lead upstairs to another 1920’s lounge, where all guests are given a playing card. The lounge singer announces a particular numbered played cards, and guests with that card are asked to join a host in the next room. Ashley was nervous going into the show, as I explained the general gist of it to her, her only request being that we stay together throughout the night. As she was called up first and we were separated, I soon realized what was happening, and though I could no longer see her, like Obi Wan sensing the destruction of Alderaan, I knew she was somewhere else and she was pissed.

Next came my turn. My small group entered a new room, and were read the rules of the show. Masks on, no talking, explore, follow any path you want through the show, be brave. We took an elevator up one floor, where one guest exited into a dark, candle-lit floor, only to have the doors close behind them and be left alone there. On the next floor, another small group was let out, and so on until we were all on random floors. There I was, standing in a cemetery, pretty much alone as the others that exited with me quickly dispersed.

“Sleep No More” is the story of Macbeth, set in a 1920’s hotel, all told without words. The show takes place in a five-floor warehouse, where each floor contains elaborately themed environments, such as a cemetery, a forest, bars, hotel rooms, the Macbeth’s bedroom and an entire floor consisting of a hospital/ sanitarium. Actors move from room to room, “acting out” their scenes, then dispersing, often in opposite directions and frequently running. As a guest, you stand in the room with them as the dancing and elaborate movements that tell the story happen around you. You are free to explore any room you want. You can follow a specific actor as they move about the complex, or wander from room to room. You are encouraged to open drawers and try every doors you find. In one room, a wardrobe opened into a secret passage, in another we found drawers and drawers full of teeth. It is very dark, and an ominous soundtrack plays through the entire building.

An entire telling of the story lasts about an hour, at which time the play resets at the beginning, which is a great opportunity to see it again from a new perspective. All the characters are all simultaneously doing something during the story, so it is impossible to see it all. As soon as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth finish their scene, each departs to another room to continue their individual stories, and will meet up at various points in the show. All the characters cross paths at some point, though sometimes it is hard to figure out how they fit into the overall story.

As I wandered through the graveyard, I wasn’t sure if someone was going to jump out at me haunted house style, and I soon found my way into the Macbeth’s bedroom. If you see this show, I strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with the story of Macbeth, as it is rarely clear as to exactly what’s happening in every scene. I saw what I believed were the Macbeths arguing over whether he should kill the king based on the witches’ prophecies, and I figured following Macbeth would probably be a good place to start. As luck would have it, Ashley soon walked into the room, and after she looked over my clothes to make sure it was me under the mask, we were luckily reunited within 10 minutes of the show starting.

For the first cycle of the show, we tried to follow Macbeth as best we could. It was difficult, as he would run out of scenes, and sometimes the large groups following along with him would meld with other groups following other characters as the two crossed paths while running from scene to scene. Soon, we entered a nightclub, where Macbeth came to see the witches once again for further guidance. Like I said, the whole story is told through dance and movement. Macbeth and the 3 witches (one of which was a petite male) stared down each other. Suddenly, dubstep music and strobe lights came on. One witch mimed giving birth to a bloody baby doll, while the male witch suddenly leaped into the scene completely naked except for a giant Minotaur head. They grinded on each other and danced around us like they were possessed. One witch striped and began to nurse the baby, while Macbeth drank blood off the male witch’s chest. Suddenly, the lights came back on, the actors dashed away to other rooms, and we were left wondering what the Hell just happened.

On the second cycle of the show, we were still following Macbeth, as we weren’t 100% sure the show had reset. Early on this time we witnessed a cool scene of Macbeth watching his wife dance with the king at a ball, her looking up at him in the balcony, seething with anger. The guests below watching the elaborate ballroom scene probably didn’t even know Macbeth was up in the balcony, and we wouldn’t have caught this glance if we weren’t standing next to him. Interesting subtle things like that make the show completely different for every guest. We then saw Macbeth murder the king in his sleep, and decided to try and follow the witches this time.

At some point, we discovered the 4th and 5th floors. We previously didn’t know they were there as none of the actors we were following traveled there. One floor was a very elaborate hospital. There was a creepy operating room, a padded cell, and a room with a couple dozen bathtubs, one of which was full of bloody water.  We realized there were a whole group of characters that we had not even seen up until this point.  It’s debatable how interesting their stories were, as their small interactions with the main cast showed their minimal importance to the show as a whole, but it was cool to know so much was going on that we didn’t even know about on a floor we hadn’t even discovered yet.

By the third and final cycle of the night, we started getting a feel for the plot and deliberately tried to avoid scenes and characters we had already seen. The whole show culminates in an epic banquet scene, where a large portion of the cast has a slow-motion dinner were Macbeth’s crimes come to light and he is ultimately hanged. After the last banquet scene of the night concluded and the show was basically over, each cast member moved into the crowd of guests, grabbed random people’s hands, and personally escorted them back to the lobby in total silence. The actor portraying Macduff coincidentally took my hand, and after we arrived back in the lobby, he removed my mask, stared deeply into my eyes for 30 seconds and exited through a door never to be seen again. I honestly thought we were going to kiss.

It goes without saying “Sleep No More” is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The show literally happens around you. It’s such a strange feeling to have these actors performing inches from you, to be rummaging through their belonging, to be a silent ghost haunting their story. The sets are so well detailed and three hours doesn’t feel like enough time to properly explore them all. I will admit, knowing the story of Macbeth is a must, and even going in with that knowledge, I still felt very lost at times. Since everything is expressed through dance and movement, some scenes can feel abstract and a little drawn out. It was hard to tell at times if their moves were we’re fighting dancing, or we’re having sex dancing. But it is so original and dense with details that it doesn’t really matter if it all doesn’t make sense. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It was a total sensory experience that was less a play, and more of walking through a dream. If any of this sounds interesting, I highly recommend checking it out if you find yourself in New York.