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Off-Broadway Review: Sleep No More

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YA author and voice-over talent Meredith Zeitlin reviews this immersive new production.

Reviewing Sleep No More, British theater company Punchdrunk’s debut NYC offering, is difficult – and maybe even pointless. The fact is, no matter what you read about the production, you won’t actually end up seeing the same show the reviewer did. You might even have an experience that is one hundred percent different. So isn’t reading a review of something you can’t actually buy a ticket to kind of… silly? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not; one of my favorite things about the evening was comparing notes with the people I came with – and with a few total strangers – when it was all over. After being separated from each other for three full hours, we sat together over old-fashioned cocktails in the beautifully appointed 1930s-style jazz club, listening to a live band play the hits of the era, and discovered that we had each, in fact, had a totally unique experience. One friend saw a play that was nearly linear in its execution. I diligently explored a mysterious hotel and saw almost none of the “action” – but didn’t feel like I’d missed a thing. A girl at our table had a coveted one-on-one experience with a cast member, which sounded eerie and exciting and made us all want to go back and do it again in the hopes of getting lucky, too. And it went on, and on, and on – rooms filled with taxidermied animals, medical files, bathtubs, coffins, or deserted baby carriages; spaces designed to look and feel like you’re actually outside; rooms that start off locked but are open the next time you pass by; an apothecary shop; an enormous banquet-hall filled with actual pine trees – plus dance sequences, fights, maniacal laughter, and, apparently, a blood-spattered, totally nude orgy featuring a goat’s head and a lot of screaming. It would, I believe, be possible to go to the show 50 times and never see the same thing twice.

I’m pretty sure there isn’t anything else playing that you could say that about. Not a bad situation to walk into, even if you’re going in a bit blind.

So, allow me to set the scene: you stand in a long line outside an ominously dark building, waiting until impeccably dressed doormen invite you inside. You don’t get your tickets from will-call here; rather, you check in as a guest at the fictional McKittrick hotel. Actors sporting period dress (and British accents with varying degrees of authenticity) escort you to the jazz lounge; here you get your first real taste of the unbelievable attention to detail that is consistent throughout the over 100 rooms soon to be open for your exploration. (I can’t even imagine the number of hours spent by the production’s design team scouring vintage shops and flea markets for the amazing props and other elements of set-dressing. It’s mind-blowing.) The Master of Ceremonies invites you in random groups to enter a different room, where everyone gets a mask (it’s required that you keep it on for the duration of the evening, and really does create the illusion of total anonymity) and directions. First: touch anything you like – except the actors. Second: No talking – to anyone, for any reason other than an emergency. And yes, there will be people watching from dark corners to make sure you follow the rules.

And then? Why, they turn you loose into the hotel, where you can spend up to three hours doing anything you like! You can sit in a single room and read every scrap of paper inside it – and you really could, if you wanted to, without worrying you’d run out of material. You can, as I chose to, attempt to find every room in the place – I had an idea that I could find a secret passageway if I looked hard enough. (I didn’t succeed in my mission, but I did continue to find new rooms up until the very last minute. No doubt there were still quite a few I missed in the mazelike hotel, which is dark, creepy, and covers five – or is it six, including possible secret rooms?! – floors.) You can follow a particular character – once you happen upon one, that is – and see where his or her journey takes you. Many people chose this route, which often led to crowding around scenes featuring more than one performer. I discovered I much preferred being all alone, wandering and inspecting things, but apparently there are many devoted fans who come back and attempt to follow a different character each time, hoping to see all the scenes play out.

The performers are really more like dancers than actors, as there is a great deal of truly incredible movement and not much scripted dialogue. They are the only ones with a set plan for the evening, and act out carefully constructed sequences with each other and alone, literally running all over the hotel. Seriously, if you plan to follow them, wear sneakers or you’ll be left behind. And, because the scenes play out so quickly and in such varied locations, a room you saw earlier might look or be populated in a completely different way when you return to it, adding an extra layer of interest to the whole set-up. You simply cannot run out of things to see and explore. Overall, the experience was akin to being in an R-rated version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion – without anyone to guide you on your way, of course. Absolutely worth the ticket price, and then some.

One final thought: I knew before going in that the “play” is loosely based on Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca, but in all honesty – with the exception of a few letters and other created paraphernalia – I didn’t get it. Maybe those audience members who followed the action got a bigger taste of that part of it. But ultimately, it really didn’t matter. Just do yourself a favor and don’t be one of the couples who refuse to be separated – it’s lame, and it means that only one person is actually having the experience. The other one is just following along, which is really a wasted opportunity, in my opinion.

Directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle. Designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns. Choreography by Maxine Doyle. Sound design, Stephen Dobbie; lighting design, Felix Barrett, Euan Maybank and Austin R. Smith; costumes, David Israel Reynoso. With Phil Atkins, Kelly Bartnik, Sophie Bortolussi, Eric Jackson Bradley, Nicholas Bruder, Ching-I Chang, Hope T. Davis, Stephanie Eaton and others. About 21 / 2 hours. No one younger than 16 permitted. Through June 25 at 530 W. 27th St., New York. Tickets $75-$95. Call 866-811-4111 or visit sleepnomorenyc.com.

Meredith Zeitlin is a voice-over talent and YA author. Her voice-over work can be found at her official website, MZSpeaks.com. Her debut novel, Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters, will be published by Putnam in spring 2012.

Author: Meredith Zeitlin, Special to CC2K

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