After seeing Sleep No More in New York I found that it was a theater experience of an entirely different kind, one I won’t forget, and one I can’t quite digest, embrace, praise or review.
The McKittrick Hotel was completed in 1939 in Chelsea and was intended to be New York City’s finest and most decadent luxury hotel of its time. Six weeks before opening, and two days after the outbreak of World War II, the legendary hotel was condemned and left locked, permanently sealed from the public. Until now, as one huge stage for the immersive play Sleep No More.
The play is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Since I knew that, I actually bought a summary to read beforehand – alas, I couldn’t do it.
Methinks a Shakespeare reader I am not…
Since the play was highly recommended as one of the most amazing art events ever, I went in without any knowledge of Macbeth. I don’t think it made any difference in my experience.
I arrived at the theater early for the 7:00pm opening. I was customer number six, based on my coat check ticket number.
After entering the theater I was ushered up a poorly lit flight of stairs and down a maze of almost completely black hallways. This served to disorient me right away. I wore sturdy sneakers and I was glad, because the floor was often uneven. I felt hesitant to even make steps sometimes, since I could see nothing. Eventually I figured out that the hall was narrow enough that I could simply touch both sides and guide my way in. After some twists and turns I arrived at a smoky bar reminiscent of the 1930 era in New York, complete with bartenders and guests, all in period costumes. I sat down and waited, while more and more guests made their way into the bar. I ordered a staff-recommended absinthe shot – $10 a shot, holy shit! – and I could have used five more to get into the right spirit. The few minutes at the bar helped leave New York City behind and slowly get immersed in the macabre world of Sleep No More.
An usher took me with a group of about 20 people, gave us masks and told us the rules of the game.
If you have seen the movie Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise you may remember the scene at the mansion, where all the guests – and hosts – were masked. In Sleep No More, all audience members have to wear masks like these. There are facilitators who wear black masks, and the actors don’t wear any masks. We were also told we were not allowed to talk, neither to each other, nor to the black masks, nor to the actors.
We entered an elevator very reminiscent of the one in the Haunted House in Disneyland, quiet, in masks. They wanted to break up groups and couples, so they let off just a few people at different stops.
After I got off the elevator on one of the five floors of the hotel, I was completely alone. The entire set is very dark and spooky. I explored mazes, dusty rooms, creepy cubby holes, and here and there a ghost with a white mask would appear stumbling about. Nobody ever talked, of course, so the guests became part of the scenery.
The sound track changed from place to place, some sound reminiscent of the Eyes Wide Shut scenes and of Cirque du Soleil. Everything was very dark. It was hard to see wherever I went. It took quite some time until I actually found actors doing something. Pretty soon I learned to look for the groups of spectators standing around to see some action.
The actors never talked. Sometimes they cried, yelled, shouted, screamed, but none of the utterances were in English. They were – otherworldly. They told entire story by pantomime and dance.
The hotel was huge, with five stories of rooms, halls, mazes, dead-ends, and stairs. Since the action goes on in different places at the same time, it was impossible to follow and see everything.
After about 45 minutes I started to have my fill. I had roughly paced through all the rooms, I had seen most of the characters, and I had already figured out that I didn’t really “get” what was going on. The actors did a lot of dancing, break-dancing-like dancing, spinning, twirling, swinging, jumping along walls. Scene after scene of dancing got old for me. Dancing conventionally on the floor, dancing on tables (lots of different tables), dancing on the bar, behind the bar, on the pool table, guys throwing around the girls, sometimes violently, in different scenes and different locations, became repetitive. I wandered around mildly bored and looked for interesting happenings.
There was a lot of blood, a fair amount of nudity, and a lot of ritualistic behavior that, I am sure, made sense to some people, but not me. I picked an actor and followed her around, as much as possible, to see scenes I might have missed otherwise.
Powerful effects like strobe lights, extremely loud music and drums, laser, bizarre outfits, complete nudity, lots of blood and shocking violence, all with masked, silent, throngs of spectators standing around definitely transported me into another world for a few hours.
I stayed until the event was over at 10:00pm, and suddenly found myself on the streets of Chelsea in the middle of the New York nightlife – and all the people without masks looked kind of weird.
Was it worth the $90 I spent on my ticket not counting the absinthe? Definitely!
Would I recommend it? Cautiously.
It was definitely something I had never quite experienced before, like a really weird movie except I was in it. Since guests cannot talk or interact with anyone, this is the perfect thing to go to alone. Nobody noticed that I didn’t have a date.
Most reviewers called it amazing. Some thought it was a total waste of money and time.
To me, it was a very macabre trip, and I had bad dreams that night.