As a child, at haunted houses or at Plymouth Plantation, or at theme parks my mind could fill in any details that were decidedly lacking. My imagination was always willing to overlook the zipper on the back of the monster. But the older I've gotten, the fewer interactive theater experiences I've had that didn't let me down in some way or another.
Sleep No More not only didn't let me down, it far exceeded every expectation I had. It was meant to transport us fully and it did. I feel like I lucid-dreamed someone else's nightmare.
The audience enters through a swanky 1930s bar called Manderlay*. John and I took seats near the stage, but the Annie Darcy Band was on break. Soon our playing card numbers were called, and we entered a dark hallway. We were asked to be silent and to keep our masks on. What masks? Oh, just the blank white masks that they were handing out to everyone. Masks on? Good.
Sleep No More is a Punchdrunk and A.R.T collaboration. It's defined most accurately as "immersion theater." Every room in the Old Lincoln School in Brookline has been transformed carefully and deliberately into a different fantasy set. The audience is invited and encouraged to touch anything they want. (In an office, I pawed through a drawer and found a notebook full of frantic scribbling and sentence fragments; in another room a school room desk was full of hay and human hair.) The audience follows actors through dimly lit hallways, bearing witness to the characters' interactions. Lights, sounds and even cleverly layered smells guide emotional reactions in every room.
The story is Macbeth, but through a Hitchcock lens, and most of the scenes are completely non vocal. The success of the scenes relies on the ability of the actors to communicate relationship and intent through facial expressions and body language. And they do not disappoint. Each and every actor is fully committed to moving honestly through a world we're just trespassing in.
You can also read John's account of the evening. But we had very different nights. Every audience member has a potentially completely different experience depending on which characters they chose to follow, when to leave a scene or stay and what rooms to explore next. In the end everyone finds their way to the same location for the final scene of the play, a shocking and visually impressive climax.
John and I followed the second Mrs. de Winters as she ran through the hotel lobby and into an office two floors below us. She was startled out of a reverie induced by a photograph she found by a man who approached her from behind. As we stood by the anger in his eyes turned to desire, they embraced and kissed. When she fled, I ran after her leaving John with the man.
After a following her for some time I found myself alone with her. She beckoned me into a small bedroom, locked the door and bid me to sit down. I sat. She took my mask off and suddenly the room became very, very real. She leaned in and told me a story. As she told me the story we held hands. Slowly we were getting closer until we were embracing. The story was sad. I was comforting her. I had been told not to speak, and I didn't. Not even when she kissed my forehead. She put the mask back on my face and led me to the hall.
I entered chapels and bedrooms. I watched couples dancing in a misty forest that intoxicated me with the smell of pine. Later in the evening, left on my own, I accidentally walked in on Duncan's murder. I followed Macbeth back to his room, watched his wife wash the blood of his face, hands and chest. When he left, I stayed silently watching her private journey from anxiety to agony to outright hysteria.
Like a dream, some details are hazy - was that a knife or a playing card? And others are firmly impressed in my memory - I remember, as an example, the chapter that the Bible was open to in de Winter's bedroom.
The last scene left me unable to speak for a little while, and I still felt the effects of the dream like state as I pushed my way out of Manderlay, which had become impossibly crowded. When John and I finally met up outside we compared notes. Together we pieced together more of the show than we would have seen had we come just alone or had tried (as some people did) to stay as a unit.
Sleep No More was one of the most satisfying audience experiences I've had in a very long time because it created an entire world of make believe to invest myself in without fear of interruption by logic or reason. It was permission to explore and process in new ways. It was a collective experience, but it was also a solitary one. Occasionally my mind poked me with "I wish I could be in a show like this," but otherwise it obeyed the reality of my/the dream world. Although it was nightmarish at times I emerged at the end feeling more refreshed and well rested than before. Amazing.
* Manderlay is fictitious in that it had been built as a set piece for the show, but also completely functional as it's being run by nearby La Morra.