Sleep No More

There’s a fairly unique theatrical experience in New York right now called Sleep No More, and the city has been abuzz. I finally decided to try it out, at the urging of some friends visiting from out of town.

I alternated between miserable and furious, though time and contemplation have helped me find a little perspective.

First, some background. An old warehouse has been converted into the McKittrick Hotel, spanning several floors, which guests explore while wearing white plastic masks to conceal their faces. You’re not allowed to speak once you step out onto the floor, you typically end up exploring on your own without your friends, and you can’t use your cellphone or any other electronic devices. There are even black-mask-clad ushers lurking in the dark, charged with enforcing the rules.

The props and set are intricate, with remarkable attention to detail. Books, pictures, letters, furniture, even whiskey decanters are all set up for you to play with and explore. You’re meant to feel as if you’re in a 1920s-style hotel, with props and scenery that supports the theme.

The only people not wearing masks are the actors, who try to make up for not speaking by acting out scenes with fierce melodrama, intense and mournful stares at one another, and interpretive dance. And they will alternate between hysterical sobbing, wordless screaming, and running frantically through the convoluted hallways and stairwells of the hotel.

Plus, they drink excessively, get partially or fully naked, and even give each other bloody baths in old fashioned bathtubs. No, really.

Between the silence, the masks, the props, the nudity, and the dim lighting, it should come across as a mix between Eyes Wide Shut and American Horror Story. The problem is, it just plain doesn’t. What they’re going for is obvious; their failure even moreso.

Honestly, it just came across as cheesy most of the time. Contrast this with a haunted house in which the cheesiness is part of the fun — no, this is an interactive theatrical experience that takes itself far too seriously.

The story is supposed to be like a film noir retelling of MacBeth, but I didn’t follow it at all. Being largely unfamiliar with the film noir genre of movies and with MacBeth, it’s probably no surprise that I was absolutely lost.

Having been prepped ahead of time to play with props, read letters and books, try to experience everything that I could, and take nothing for granted, I thought I was well prepared to crack the mysteries of the place. I was going to find the hidden passages in the closets, find the secrets tucked away inside a seemingly innocent book, discover trap doors and such, etc. I’m a smart guy, inquisitive and determined when there’s a mystery to solve, so I figured this would be right up my alley.

I was wrong. So very wrong. I didn’t find any clues, no secret passages, no hidden rewards for the industrious. All I did was feel increasingly stupid as time went by and I kept aimlessly picking things up and studying them. And I became convinced that the ushers lurking quietly in the shadows watching me were all silently laughing at the dumbass who was doing everything wrong.

As someone who isn’t athletic, isn’t creative or talented, and doesn’t have dashing good looks and a rockin’ body to fall back on, I place a lot of stock in my brain. I’m proud of my intelligence, my education, and my quick wit. Making me feel stupid or foolish is the quickest way to really devastate my mood, and this experience accomplished that very quickly.

I was so frustrated, embarrassed, and angry that I was literally trembling after about 45 minutes. At that moment I would have gladly paid another $90 just for the privilege of going home, but alas, my friends were off exploring and we had traveled together, so I was stuck.

I decided to get in on the “follow the actors” action, and any time an actor came rushing towards me I’d get in the line of sheep racing after him or her. I kept finding myself bored by the actors’ actions; who wants to watch someone rock back and forth on a chair, or apply make-up in a mirror, or silently argue with another actor? The only highlights were when the actors would get naked, and I was way too annoyed to even enjoy that much.

It was at moments like these that I nearly became physically violent with strangers. These jackasses would literally be running through a dark room, in a set designed to be full of twists and turns and whatnot, while wearing a mask and unable to speak. I lost count of the number of idiots who would slam into me and nearly knock us both over, all in the hopes of following an actor to some monumental revelation. You would’ve thought that the building must have been on fire, so frantic were these people. And even when standing still watching the scene unfold, people would push and shove and elbow their way in front of those of us who were standing there patiently observing.

After about an hour and a half, I was absolutely done with this, and was ready to find the lounge and just listen to live music while sipping a calming cocktail. Unfortunately it took me a full thirty minutes to find my way out, and eventually I had to quietly ask a black-masked usher where to go. Mind you, I tried — I only gave up and asked after I had gone up and down the same few staircases over and over again trying to find my way.

I was so pissed off, miserably hot (for real, I was pouring sweat into my mask) and ready to punch someone. To say that I was unhappy with my experience would be an absurd understatement.

Talking through my observations afterwards with my friends who went the same night, I realized that I was not alone in my frustration, but that I also took it a lot more personally than they did. And after some reflection, I’ve come to accept the reason why.

I’m someone who needs to understand. Not to say that I have to have everything spoon fed to me — I like a good mystery, and the thrill of figuring things out and being surprised by unexpected twists — but there does need to be some resolution for me to feel like it was a good experience. Even if the resolution is a deliberate concession that there is no neat or happy ending, I’m okay with that… But in this case, it was just an incoherent mess.

So here’s where I’ve landed with Sleep No More: if I were to go through it again — and that’s a great big “if” — I would definitely do a whole lot of research ahead of time. I would have to set myself up to successfully understand the story unfolding before me.

I’d reread MacBeth, for one. And then I’d scour the Internet for reviews, tips, and pointers from bloggers who’ve been and enjoyed it. I’d learn what scenes to watch, which characters to follow, and which paths to take to see and do cool stuff. If I’m to stalk the halls of the McKittrick Hotel again, I’m going to have to abandon all ignorance and walk in with an agenda.

Who knows… Maybe I’ll see that bloody orgy that I keep reading about.

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