SLEEP NO MORE by Punchdrunk, directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, choreographed by Doyle (EMURSIVE/rebecca gold). At the McKittrick Hotel (530 West 27th Street, New York). Monday-Saturday 8 pm, late-night shows Friday-Saturday midnight. $75-$95, some premium tickets available. (866) 811-4111, email@example.com. Rating: NNNN
NEW YORK -- Sleep No More takes Shakespeare's Macbeth, throws it into a blender, turns the speed to high and feeds the resulting blood-red concoction to an eager and excited audience.
Created by the British company Punchdrunk, the production is a site-specific show on a scale I've never seen before: it covers five floors and dozens of rooms in the McKittrick Hotel, a building in Chelsea you get to explore during the course of the evening.
A few rules at the start: audience members have to wear a mask and can't speak to anyone. You get to follow any character you choose - if you're fast enough to run behind them, up and down stairs - or you can stay in a room or two and explore drawers, clothing pockets, charts and filing cabinets. And if it all becomes too much, you can settle for a while in the period jazz lounge where you first gather.
The main story is more or less that of Macbeth. A minor lieutenant murders his boss, takes power, kills others who might threaten him; he and his wife suffer guilt, madness and, finally, destruction. Mixed in with that narrative are characters who are possibly inspired by secondary figures in Shakespeare, including a doctor and several gentlewomen (here, nurses).
You'll get a certain focus on the material if you know Shakespeare, but it's not crucial for appreciating the production's drama.
The setting is 20s-30s gangsterland, the music, designed by Stephen Dobbie, a blend of pounding film noir and period pop hits. The romantic A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square is put to a decidedly un-sentimental use, the lyric's mention of "magic abroad in the air" of a demonic rather than heavenly variety.
The result is a thrilling create-your-own-evening of theatre. You can attend a dozen times - and it looked like a number of audience members were revisiting the show - and never see the same performance. The narrative's repeated three times during the evening, apparently, so you can check in or out of any scene as inclination strikes you, moving on somewhere else if you want.
You might see the King James Infirmary, the hospital on the top floor - Lady M has a mad scene here - and a version of Birnam Wood on the same level; the Macbeths' apartment, where she steels her hesitant husband to kill the king and later bathes the bloody man when he returns from doing so; and an apothecary's shop, where you can sample the candy in glass jars.
There's also the orgy that takes place on Macbeth's second visit to the witches; a miniature graveyard; the Macbeths' huge baronial hall; scenes between a pregnant, religiously devout and worried Lady Macduff and her husband; and a multitude of taxidermy on various floors.
Don't miss the banquet scene, with its echo of the Last Supper, at which the ghostly Banquo takes a seat at the celebratory meal. I saw it three times and found more details with each viewing.
Two and a half hours into the performance, I was still discovering rooms I swear I'd never seen before.
But that's just the start of the detailed production, designed by co-creator/director Felix Barrett. Offices are stuffed with specific items; you can read the files of patients in the hospital or look at all the hangings in a kind of drying hut.
At one point I passed a desk on which was a letter from Lady Macbeth thanking King Duncan for visiting them and for the necklace he gave her; an hour later, I saw the scene in which he presents her with the jewelry. Looking through the desk drawers, I found more stationery and, several layers down, an envelope covered with bloody fingerprints.
There's little text in the show, with occasional Shakespearean lines but mostly intentionally mumbled words. The performers - who rotate each performance and aren't identified for any specific show - are dancers rather than actors, and what dancers they are. Choreographer Maxine Doyle, who co-directed with Barrett, gives them amazingly athletic, sexy and dangerous moves. They fling each other back and forth, onto walls and furniture, sometimes performing eight feet above the ground on stacks of furniture or luggage.
Having the rest of the audience in masks like yourself - they're white, a blend of commedia dell'arte and stark skull - furthers the other-worldly, dreamlike quality of the show, with fine use of lighting in the often fog-filled environment. Nothing's quite real, anything seems possible.
The show opened in 2011 and is still running strong; the producers keep extending the run, with tickets now available through January.
If you're going to New York, the show's a must-see. It's an extraordinary piece of staging, a familiar story retold in a surprising context and a real theatrical feast.