The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.198  Wednesday, 23 May 2012


From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Subject:     “Sleep No More”


Dear SHAKSPER Subscribers,


Today’s New York Times has an article about “Sleep No More” that readers might find interesting. It is excerpted below, followed by 2011 NYTimes review.


A Guinea Pig’s Night at the Theater


May 22, 2012

A Guinea Pig’s Night at the Theater

By Dave Itzkoff


Even when it is not executed perfectly, theater can stir a range of feelings, from boundless elation to existential despair. On rare occasions, it can even impart blinding pain, as an overly tight mask presses your glasses into your face, setting off sensitive nerve endings you did not know you possessed.


I learned this on Thursday night as I wandered the corridors of “Sleep No More,” the site-specific theater event presented in a labyrinthine Chelsea warehouse. Created by the British company Punchdrunk, “Sleep No More” lets masked attendees follow, with eyes, ears, hands and feet, an open-ended tale that mashes up “Macbeth” with elements of Hitchcock films like “Rebecca” and “Vertigo.”


At the invitation of Punchdrunk, I was taking part in an experiment to see, primarily, if this immersive experience could be technologically tweaked to yield a new narrative-within-the- master-narrative for select participants. (I imagine that the secondary, unstated goal of this field trial was to test my exceedingly minimal threshold for discomfort.)


Working with the very nice and talented students and faculty members from the MIT Media Lab (and financed by a partnership of British arts and innovation organizations), Punchdrunk had revisited the smoke-filled and dimly lighted chambers of “Sleep No More” to add digital enhancements that if I discovered them would be activated only with the help of a special mask that was outfitted with sensors, though not necessarily built for corrective lenses.


By adding state-of-the-art gadgetry (including 8,000 more feet of cable and another 100 or so strategically placed Bluetooth and RFID sensors) to some already nontraditional storytelling, Punchdrunk’s ambition was to deliver something like a living video game. But for now, this emerging art form is still in its rudimentary, Atari 2600 phase.


The test run began with a pep talk from Punchdrunk’s Pete Higgin, whose title, enrichment director, already says something about the nonconformist company employing him. But he did not want to tell too much about my coming adventure.


“If it all works, then great,” Mr. Higgin said on the phone before the performance. Sensing, perhaps, that I wanted a bit more encouragement, he told me, Do get excited.” But he added, “There could be glitches.”


This was my first time at “Sleep No More,” at a West 27th Street space that Punchdrunk calls the McKittrick Hotel, and while I tried to keep an open mind, even its customary, unenhanced experience can be polarizing. For some, it is thrilling to be in a scrum with dozens of sweaty people chasing its characters from room to room to room. For others, it feels like a firetrap designed by David Lynch. (It is left to the reader to determine which camp I fell into.)


For the non-claustrophobic sorts who brave “Sleep No More” on a given night, there are already several story lines to be witnessed en masse. But I was supposed to be getting a narrative that was new and unique and, above all, exclusive to me. I was the 1 percent.


After donning my special mask Is it supposed to be this tight? It is? O.K. I was brought by myself to a room where an actress playing a psychic invited me to communicate with a spirit using a Ouija board. When I accepted her entreaty to help the troubled ghost, she said the ghost and I were now bound together and put her finger to my temple and, to my surprise, the mask began to vibrate. This was cool.


But my further explorations of the “Sleep No More” environs a creepy hospital, a ballroom, a maze had to be aborted because of mask-induced facial paralysis and imminent loss of consciousness.


After several adjustments to my gear by the Punchdrunk team, I was restarted, by myself, in a lawyer’s office where the keys of a typewriter began clacking away by themselves. (Again, points awarded for the atmospherics.) A printed message told me to seek a woman in red, and when I exited the room, an actress dressed in a flowing crimson gown awaited.


The woman who I later learned is Hecate, the lead witch in “Sleep No More” then entered a nightclub where other audience members and I watched her perform a garish lip-sync of “Is That All There Is?”

[ . . . ]


Tod Machover, an M.I.T. professor who is director of the institute’s media lab’s Opera of the Future group, told me that one of the experiment’s goals was to see if “you can take a live experience, whether it’s a concert or a theater show or hanging out with people you care about, and experience that somewhere else” not only observe it, but feel as if you’re participating in it as well.


[ . . . ]



Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully


April 13, 2011

Theater Review ‘Sleep No More’

Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully

By Ben Brantley


Those pushy Macbeths may be backstabbing social climbers, but you must admit that their new digs are to die for. The Thane of Cawdor and his wife have moved into a deserted hotel in the hinterlands of the West 20s, and my dear, what they’ve done with the place. Don’t be surprised if it shows up soon on the cover of Architectural Digest, bloodstains and all.


Punchdrunk, a British site-specific theater company, has taken over three abandoned warehouses on West 27th Street to enact the sorry sights of the murderous Macbeths’ career in a movable orgy titled “Sleep No More.” And the resulting adventure in décor — a 1930s pleasure palace called the McKittrick

— suggests what might have happened had Stanley Kubrick (of “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Shining”) been asked to design the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, with that little old box maker Joseph Cornell as a consultant.


[ . . . ]


An unimpaired sense of balance and depth perception is crucial to attending “Sleep No More,” which leads its audience on a merry, macabre chase up and down stairs, and through minimally illuminated, furniture-cluttered rooms and corridors. The creative team here has taken on the duties of messing with your head, which they do just as thoroughly as any artificial stimulant.


You’ll notice that so far I have not mentioned the name of the writer who immortalized Macbeth. Though the title of “Sleep No More” and much of its shadow of a plot do come from the compact tragedy that is a favorite of high school English classes, this is not the place to look for insights into Shakespeare. (For those, you would be better off checking out the current Cheek by Jowl or Theater for a New Audience productions of “Macbeth,” in which the emphasis is on interior worlds instead of the World of Interiors.)


But this largely wordless production, directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle (and designed by Mr. Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns), is not without thought-churning aperçus. These have less to do with the comely dancers who act out the doomed paths of Macbeth and company than with those clumsy, anonymous lugs in white face masks who keep elbowing one another out of the way to get a better view of the sex and violence. That’s you and me, my fellow theatergoers.


You see, everyone who attends “Sleep No More” is required to wear (and keep on) a Venetian carnival- style mask. You are also asked not to utter a word during the two and a half hours you are given to follow the characters of your choice from room to room. But you are encouraged to poke around in corners and trunks and bookcases, and allowed to get as close as (in)decency permits to the lithe- bodied denizens of this chic spook house. (Just don’t touch them, though they may well reach out and touch you.)


“Sleep No More” is, in short, a voyeur’s delight, with all the creepy, shameful pleasures that entails.  [ . . . ]


The idea is once you’re let loose on one of the floors of the hotel, you pick out a single character and pursue him or her (though you can switch any time you want), as the performer runs, dances and vaults all over the place. Dressed in drop-dead, Deco-era evening clothes, scanty lingerie or nothing at all, these characters include the Macbeths (of course), Macduff and his wife (who is conspicuously pregnant), Duncan (the king) and various witches and hotel employees. (Because the roles are mostly double-cast, I am not mentioning individual performers, but they are all lissome enough to make the audience look slow and dumpy.)


These jaded figures can be found in bedrooms, bathrooms, ballrooms, hospital rooms and nurseries getting dressed and undressed, doing the foxtrot, making every kind of love, killing one another and washing off blood. (The Macbeth mansion has many bathtubs.) Choreographed by Ms. Doyle, these activities are executed with tense balletic virtuosity by neurotic, anguished and gymnastic creatures, who climb the walls (I mean literally) in moments of high stress.


The knockout set pieces (and the detail in every room is remarkable) include a painterly banquet scene and an unnerving black mass sequence led by three ambisexual witches. The lighting is ravishingly crepuscular. The mood-matching sound design includes period pop recordings (“Goodnight Children, Everywhere,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”), techno music (but only for the witches) and swoony, suspenseful Bernard Herrmann scores for Hitchcock movies.


[ . . . ]

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