Something wickedly wonderful this way comes to Off Broadway’s McKittrick Hotel, the site of the most thoroughly original and provocative live entertainment in years: Sleep No More, a mash-up of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and 1930s film noir that combines elements of theater, dance, and haunted fun house for a unique evening that engages all of the senses.
You enter in small groups at staggered times, delivered via a costumed elevator operator to various floors in the five-story warehouse space. Once inside, you find elaborately arranged and decorated rooms (designed by Felix Garrett, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns) that evoke elements of both Macbeth and noir. There’s the herb-scented apothecary of Hecate (her charges include the Shakespeare play’s three witches). There’s the pine-scented Burnham Wood, with its trees helpfully mounted on wheels. There are the domestic rooms of the Macduff family, whom Macbeth ruthlessly slaughters (be sure to peer in the two-way mirror in one bedroom to see through to the bloody nursery on the other side of the wall). And there’s the office of a ’30s-style detective agency apparently run by Malcolm, the heir of the Scottish king who is Macbeth’s first victim.
In every room, you are encouraged to explore — to open cupboards, examine clues, peer into file folders, and read letters (such as Lady Macbeth’s thank-you note to the king for her necklace). But before long, one of the cast members will enter the room and act out a mostly silent scene for you. It may involve well-staged fights, parkour-style wall-climbing, or impressively physical dance routines (the very aggressive choreography is by Maxine Doyle). An actor may be tossed from a pool table and land on your shoes or be thrown literally through a wall — and a hole that you didn’t realize was even there. A bloodied Lady Macbeth may strip off her clothes in front of you and get into a bathtub. And if performers need to get to their next scene, they will doubtless push you aside to get there (there are also black-mask-clad staffers present to guide patrons out of harm’s way).
You’re welcome to follow a cast member through the space — or, in some cases, to be led by hand by one to another room or up three flights of stairs to another level. (This is not a show for sedentary types, and some passageways are very, very dark.) Or you can go at your own pace to explore the labyrinthine hotel more methodically. No two patrons will see the exact same show. In that way, the experience of Sleep No More is not unlike playing a videogame such as Myst or Doom, where you carve out a highly individual series of sensations and encounters from a too-rich trove of available offerings. You choose your own adventure.
As the evening progresses, though, the narrative element of the production starts to kick into higher gear. You’ll see the characters more bloodied, perhaps muttering random lines about death. Eventually, the action culminates in a stunning slow-motion banquet scene — where all audience members have been assembled to observe the final, spectacular coup de theatre. (I was on a different floor when the scene began, but found myself wordlessly led by hand to the appropriate room by the actor who had operated the elevator when I first arrived.)
I’ve always been a little leery of audience-participation shows. But the British troupe Punchdrunk, the masterminds behind this brilliant production, have devised a clever way to overcome any resistance and help you screw your courage to the sticking place: When you enter the space, you’re handed a mask and told to remain silent throughout the evening. The effect is transformative. You become an anonymous spectator, emboldened to riffle through drawers or sneak a licorice from the sweetshop. But you also become another helpless character in the story, a white-faced ghost hovering about the action but unable to alter the outcome of the tragic events playing out in front of you.
Sleep No More is an unusual, but unusually enlightening, evening of entertainment — one that encourages you to rethink the themes and motifs in Macbeth as well as the nature of theater itself. It’s a tale told by geniuses, full of sound and fury — and just about everything signifies. A