Punch Drunk

The Hotel Unheimlich

It was my daughter’s idea.  She had heard of the show from a friend and so had some idea what to expect.  Her experience was therefore more extensive than mine, it seems.  I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t see all I heard about from her, but at the same time our divergent experiences simply underlined a wonderful aspect of the show: the experience you have of it is largely determined by your own volition.  I could have stuck with her, went where she went, followed the actors she followed, but then I’m not her and I wanted my wandering through the dreamlike, nightmarish world of Sleep No More to be mine. Sleep No More is theater as performance art, as installation, as dance and mime, as full immersion experience, as a trip into the collective uncanny.  Developed by a group called Punch Drunk (aptly enough), the show first had a run in Boston and true cognoscenti are quick to say they saw it there (New Yorkers don’t get everything first), but, from what I’ve heard, the Boston show was not as extensive, didn’t take up, as it does in New York, four stories of a warehouse in Chelsea, reconfigured as the McKittrick hotel, a kind of living movie set you never emerge from until the show is over (or until you choose to leave).  After four hours inside, I was ready to go, I suppose, but that’s not to say I would’ve left any time soon.  Like a child at closing time at the carnival, one feels there must be one more thrill, one more odd sensation, one more unexpected event still to come.

If you haven’t heard about it (or have), here are some facts you’re likely to hear: the audience is free to roam wherever they wish through the four floors but must wear the provided masks and maintain silence; these restrictions prevent audience intrusion into the spectacle—if a member of the cast wants you to interact, he or she will involve you—but they also create a side spectacle of roving, masked and silent watchers (or voyeurs, to make it sound as creepy as it sometimes feels) who are your doubles or comrades, and in their company one feels part of a collectivity less like a theater audience and more like a scavenger hunt or like “free time” on an unguided tour of the Twilight Zone.

About the show itself: it dramatizes, in somewhat free associative dumbshow, the story of Macbeth—which means there’s death and blood and satanic rites—combined with elements extracted from Alfred Hitchcock’s noirish version of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel Rebecca, and other elements that, as best my daughter and I could piece it together, had to do with murder in a hotel and a stint in an insane asylum.  It would be easier to parse the action if, say, the different threads were self-contained on one floor or another, so that the audience could peek in or pass through, “story-surfing” amongst the floors.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Actors pass you on their way to or from a scene and you can choose to follow or not.  Maybe you’d rather keep looking at the fascinating set of an apothecary’s store, or a post office filled with hand-written messages, or a taxidermy shop, or the graveyard, or the grand ballroom where you may move amidst a moving grove.

I found it hard to fix on characters per se, to say nothing of performances.  It gets underway in the ball room where all the characters are present for a dance and then go their different ways.  Who you find yourself following might be due to whim or to an effort to stick with Macbeth, say, or, as I did, because you saw one woman drink drugged milk and wanted to see what would happen to her next.  If you’ve ever dreamed of not being bound by linearity, this is the show for you.  What you “learn” is largely dependent on what kind of sleuth you are, what kind of things you notice, what your imagination, once aroused, does to you.

If you’ve ever sat through a performance where you found yourself not too engaged by who was on stage and wondered what the other characters, off stage, were up to, it’s liberating, here, to know you can go wander in search of them.  Someone is up to something somewhere, so seek and ye shall find.  And whatever you find seems somehow intended for you, if only because you led yourself there.  That’s the dramatic element that I found most haunting and inspiring: the feeling of being implicated in what I saw because I stayed and watched it, or because I trailed someone to see what they were going to do.  The only comparable experience is a dream where you seem to be doing something for your own reasons and yet have no control over what happens.

The other aspect that stayed with me and wouldn’t let go is amazement at the design elements, the lighting, the smells, the sounds, the full sensory experience that creates a range of reactions—some rooms you just want to get out of, others you could imagine hanging out in if you were a member of the Addams family, others might feel, oddly, like a place you’ve been before and may find yourself in again—like returning to Manderley, or to the witches’ den—led by a shuddering sense of repetition compulsion.

When we attended, back in April, the show was slated to close in the first week of June.  Now it’s the end of July and the show is slated to close on Labor Day weekend.  I suppose it will close, but the longer the show lasts, the more people hear about it and want to see it, and those who have already been want to go again.  I have to admit I’m wondering if I can manage to work in another visit before the end.  Maybe I’ll see my earlier self wandering amongst the onlookers, a remnant of myself that never left, like Nell at the end of The Haunting of Hill House.

“Still it cried, ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house.”