Category Archives: sleep no more

Manhattan Cocktail Classic at Sleep No More

I remember the first time I went to see Sleep No More, the immersive theatrical take on Macbeth, over a year ago, I thought I might need to go just one more time to wrap my mind around what I’d witnessed. Now, somehow, this Monday I reached my tenth visit, yet the show still holds some mystery and draw in its beauty that has yet to fade for me. I haven’t done a recap in a while because I feared they might get a little repetitive, but this ended up being one of my favorite evenings, and there are details I want to remember.

This particular visit was especially wonderful, as it was part of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, a festival of events revolving around glorious mixed drinks, and was featuring Bowmore scotch whiskey cocktails all evening. I love scotch whiskey perhaps as much as I love Sleep No More, so I did not doubt it was going to be an enjoyable experience, yet I wasn’t prepared for quite how extraordinary it was. I went with my friend Sean who hadn’t been before, and we found ourselves checking in with the first round of guests. After quickly drinking a Taxidermy After Dark cocktail (I mean, it was pretty much named so that I would consume 20 of them), we found ourselves in the elevator. I love to arrive early as you get to experience the space alone before the crowds later in the night, although this night it never actually got that busy. It was probably the best audience I’ve experienced, aside from the guy who shoved me into a wall to get a one-on-one with Malcolm (I hope that he then enjoyed being shoved into a wall himself), but I didn’t see one person check their phone and the linked couples were rare. The first round of the ballroom scene where many of the characters arrive for a party had only a few other people watching, and Lady Macduff actually walked over to pass out into my arms since I was the only person on her side of the ballroom.

“Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo” by Théodore Chassériau (from WikiCommons)

What I continue to find fascinating about Sleep No More is how from different angles a scene can change, how different characters and the actors who play them can alter your perspective on this tragic story. I found that often I was watching a scene with a character where previously I thought the other character was alone. I even discovered a whole room that I had no idea existed, which is insane for how much time I’ve spent in this space. (Technically, over a day.) This happened when I followed Banquo, who I later found out was played by the extraordinary dancer Tony Bordonaro. I guess I had never stuck with this character long enough for his whole arc (the characters go in roughly hour-long loops of the performance which repeats three times), and was just blown away by the gorgeous, acrobatic movement throughout the choreography. It’s been a while since I was dancing, but having done ballet, pointe, and lyrical for about ten years I still have a great admiration for how good dancers can make precise control and challenging movement look so fluid and natural. (Actually, between Sleep No More and seeing the film Pina, I’ve decided to start taking dance again, although modern instead of ballet.) For those of you who haven’t read Macbeth recently, Banquo receives a prophecy, like Macbeth, from the witches. However, his is that he himself will not be king, but his descendants will be. Macbeth murders Banquo in his quest for power (in Sleep No More this is one of the more violent scenes), although his son Fleance escapes. Banquo’s ghost later shows up to haunt Macbeth, also depicted in Sleep No More in an unsettling fashion.

Anyway, let us step back from the Shakespeare recaps and return to Sleep No More, which is much more an interpretation of the mood and tone of Macbeth than a chronicle of each of its plot points. I oddly found myself alone watching Banquo in some of the most striking dances, including a writhing, tortured scene that occurs during Duncan’s murder and a gravity-defying dance in a coat room. I realize of course that the dancers perform whether or not anyone is watching in Sleep No More, but I still felt really honored to witness these amazing performances with silence around me. This all led to the room I had never seen, where I found myself alone with Banquo, who removed my mask and revealed that I was in fact Fleance. I will not spoil exactly what happens, but I did end up with ashes and oil on my hands. Whether or not this was why when I found myself right after dancing with the Boy Witch he could not stop laughing I’m not sure. Maybe he thought I had been digging around in the graveyard.

I roamed around for a while after that, taking in the space without the usual swell of people. The other character who I really spent a significant amount of time with was the Taxidermist. You can return to my original choice of Bowmore cocktail and leave your surprise there. The guy who was playing him this night, and I didn’t see him after so I’m not sure of the name, was so wonderfully creepy. He was cleaning bones in the taxidermy shop and drooling everywhere, and also chipping out pieces of marrow and eating them. He even played a shoulder bone like a violin with a file, making a dreadful screeching noise, and then put all the bones in a glass cabinet while experimenting with the different horrid creaking noises the lid could make. For some reason, everyone else in the audience left. At one point he reached over and felt my spine, testing the size of the bones, and then gripped my arm and brought me into a dark room where he seemed to look over other aspects of my skeleton. I thought of how the Irish Giant must have felt when gazed at by the anatomist John Hunter. Other strange stuff happened, and it was definitely more sinister and creepy than my encounter with another taxidermist during a previous Sleep No More visit. I love how different actors interpret the characters. Yes, the choreography and paths are the same, but just like Macbeth read by one actor can be dramatically different from the next, so can dance and the spirit of the characters.

Although I had intended to take a break at the bar for another cocktail, the time got away from me and I found myself at the end. I was transfixed watching the final banquet scene and thinking about the hours before and didn’t realize that Mrs. Danvers, the maid referencing a character from Hitchcock’s Rebecca, was standing beside me until I felt hands on my shoulders and saw her cowering behind me so she didn’t have to watch the horrible conclusion to Macbeth’s murderous journey. (I feel fine spoiling the end of a 400 year old play, so sorry if you did not know that Macbeth dies.) She ended up escorting me to the hotel lobby where the after party was to take place and left me with an ominous letter from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth.

The after party was fantastic. Every drink I had was delicious and I definitely have to do more Manhattan Cocktail Classic events next year. I regret that I missed their gala in the New York Public Library, because in addition to Sleep No More and scotch whiskey, I also take great joy in books and old libraries. Sometimes I am amazed at how many passionate obsessions I can contain within my head.

So will I go again? Well, that’s actually already been decided as yes and there are tickets to my name. I won’t give you the date so you won’t stage the intervention. But as long as it stays open and it continues to wrap me in its world I will not regret more visits. It’s interesting how it has made me think about engaging with art in other contexts as well. I was at the opening of Tom Sach’s Mission Mars exhibit at the Armory last night (don’t worry, I’ll definitely post more about that soon), and felt like the decision to give my mind over to it as an immersive experience where we totally believe people are about to go to Mars was a continuation of my mindset from the night of Sleep No More before. (Or is that called a hangover? I don’t know…) It also makes me think of my own art, and how I want my writing to not be confined to some screen, but a living thing that changes a mental reality, if only for a brief moment.

For my previous recaps of Sleep No More, click here.

Halloween at Sleep No More

I love Halloween and I love Sleep No More (for your reference), so when I heard that there was going to be a whole week of themed nights at the theatrical experience for my favorite holiday, I immediately bought tickets to one, and then was asked to a second. Perhaps I am a bit obsessed…

I started with The Darkest Shadow, the Thursday night show where all “guests” were required to wear black. (The audience is referred to as guests as we are checking into the McKittrick Hotel for the experience.) It was cold and rainy when I got to the building, still too early to go inside. So I hid under my umbrella as I waited for my friend, curious how this night would be special from the others. For those who have not followed my extensive exploration of Sleep No More, it’s basically a huge, interactive theatre installation, taking characters from Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca and placing them in a film noir-esque setting, where they loop through the same tortured actions of murder, love, and violence. The audience wears masks and isn’t allowed to talk, making you a rather startling voyeur.

About when the doors were to open, we noticed a well-dressed group walking down 27th Street in the rain, holding matching black umbrellas, candles, and flowers. There was an immediate silence down the line as they processed by. They were followed at a short distance by the actor who would be playing Macbeth, a ghost at what was his own funeral. One of the characters reached out to give me a flower, which I later found was meant to be placed at Macbeth’s funeral altar inside the McKittrick.

The check in process was a little different. I got a much darker card than usual displaying the Jack of Hearts, but when I went into the bar where you usually wait for your card to be called, I was instead offered an absinthe shot and we toasted “to sleep.” Then I was in the elevator heading into the almost empty space, shaking from the cold and the nervousness of what was going to happen next, even though at this point I have a somewhat good idea.

I again found myself chasing fragments of narrative, mentally connecting them with the puzzle of action that’s already in my head. Like the previous times, I saw many new scenes, following the Porter and the Boy Witch who I’d previously seen only fleetingly. I’d never spent much time in the hotel lobby and was surprised at how many characters careened in and out, and was especially struck by a lip synced performance of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” by the Boy Witch, who had forced tears streaming down his face. I saw a few small rooms for the first time and felt able to linger in empty spaces, not under the pressure of earlier visits to see everything immediately.

I knew a party was somehow going to take place after the performance, and as I watched the finale from the balcony, I noticed a gleam of brass instruments in the crowd. While the show usually ends with Macbeth’s death and the audience going out to the small Manderlay Bar, this time a funeral jazz band started playing and a coffin was brought in for Macbeth’s body, which was processed out of the room by the cast. Then a bar was revealed and the party started right there in the ballroom/Birnam Wood. There was delicious absinthe punch, dancers on stilts and pointe shoes, and two other parties, one in the hotel lobby with the jazz band and another in the Manderlay Bar. It was fantastic and I lost track of time… and the fact I had to work the next day.

Luckily, I had tickets to go back on Halloween for La Danse Macabre! This performance again started with the funeral procession on 27th Street, although without the rain it was a little less ominous. However, all the guests were either dressed to terrify or dressed in black, so it was still wonderfully creepy. (Plus there was the actress who gave me a candle and looked in my eyes like she knew me…) The most genius costume I saw that night was someone who dressed just like the masquerade goer in Eyes Wide Shut that wears the Sleep No More mask.

There were again absinthe shots before the elevator and this time all the playing cards were blood splattered, but the best surprise of all was a cameo performance by Alan Cumming in the hospital ward! I thought this new character looked familiar and finally made the connection in my head. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get in on the one-on-ones he was doing, although at one point in the night I did get some rather close interaction from the bald witch that was pretty intense. The audience seemed to be a lot of people who had been before and could anticipate the action, but even if it got crowded later in the night, I still had moments like watching Duncan’s body being discovered while I was almost alone, following his son who had tears on his face as he pulled himself together, that made me forget it was a busy Halloween night.

It was interesting to see two performances so close together, and it really brought out the fact that even if the action is exactly the same, the dancers all bring something unique to their performances. I noticed this most with the boy witches, one of whom was impish and vulnerable, the other of whom was intense and wryly serious. They both brought the character its necessary devious, otherworldly quality, but it made me think of how much my previous experiences were directly influenced by the actors and the tone they set. It’s easy to overlook the individual dancers in the huge production of Sleep No More, with its lavish sets, amazing sound and lighting design (I really appreciated the well-timed flickerings on the town street), and visual effects, but without them it would just be a rather eerie haunted house.

The after party started again at the finale and was again fantastic. It was amazing to be able to just lounge around the sets for the hotel lobby and ballroom and dance to DJed LCD Soundsystem music or jazz standards. (I probably was also staring in awe way too much at Alan Cumming, the actors who were joining the party, and Reggie Watts who I spied in a corner.) I have some photos from the party below, although since I only had my iPhone and it was very dark, they can only give you an idea.

Sleep No More: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again

It turns out I can go back to Manderley again, as Sleep No More, the immersive Macbeth/Rebecca theatre piece, continues to extend its run. Even on my third visit last weekend, I saw so many new scenes, even visited new rooms, and interacted with new characters. (Read about my first and second visits to discover the otherworldly experiences I’d already had.)

This was my first Friday night visit and the crowd was a little crazier (I saw people checking their cell phones for the first time, which kind of kills the mood), yet there were still those moments both quick and extended when I found myself stumbling in on a character alone, or being pulled into their world. Right from the beginning it started. My friends had gotten playing cards for an earlier entry and I was waiting alone when the lecherous porter came by and asked if I was waiting for a drink. I said no and was whisked to the group already waiting for the elevator, their masks on.

On my first visit, I’d had the chance to go with the taxidermist into his secret room, but I had let someone else as it had come immediately after a rather intense one-on-one with another character and I needed a break. I’d definitely regretted it the next day. Luckily, I got another chance to take his hand and found myself alone in a dark room, where the taxidermist took off my mask and led me to a chair. I won’t go into detail as to what happened next as I’d hate to spoil it for anyone. There was a bit of a challenge involved, and I guess I made the right choice, and was soon pulled away to another room where Hecate was seated at a table. The taxidermist clutched to my shoulders for what seemed like several minutes and then darted away. I was left with the rest of the crowd, anonymous again.

Like all my experiences at Sleep No More, the memories are like a half-remembered dream. I was finally able to follow Lady Macbeth and saw her terribly vulnerable disintegration into madness that takes her to the hospital, where the blood still won’t go away. I saw Macbeth kill Duncan (splashing me with a little blood in the process), after the king had unveiled numerous ticking clocks into an almost unbearable crescendo that suddenly stopped. I finally discovered that the mysterious blonde woman I’d been unable to place was the bald witch in disguise, as she danced alone in a forest and pulled off her hair. I trailed after her back to a secret room where she watched herself in the mirror. I saw another witch and Banquo dance in the chapel where Banquo received the prophecy that he would never be king. And twice I found myself in an almost secret scene, where in a closet-like room Malcolm and Macduff interrogate each other about the king’s death, violently swinging a lamp back and forth.

When we finally all stumbled out into the lively Manderley Bar and took off our venetian masks, we reunited for drinks and tried to connect our experiences over absinthe punch. Believe it or not (actually, you’ll find this pretty easy to believe), I might go back a fourth time. The show has just extended through Halloween. And sometimes, in my dreams, I already go back there.

[Can’t make it to NYC? I just discovered a fantastic video on BBC that gives you some insight. Check it out.]