Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" at ART

I headed up to Boston (Brookline, actually) Sunday night to see Punchdrunk's amazing show, "Sleep No More", co-produced with American Repertory TheatreSleep No More, a site-specific blending of Macbeth and Hitchcock (apparently, elements from Vertigo, Rebecca, and Psycho), was first produced in 2003 in London, and this production marks Punchdrunk's US debut.

Picture courtesy ART

My friend Sarah Angliss works with Punchdrunk in England, and when I saw her this summer she told me about the company, and how well known they are in the UK for doing non-linear, site-specific shows where the audience roams around large spaces, often old or abandoned industrial facilities.  Sleep No More was staged on three floors and the basement of the fascinating (and apparently unoccupied) Old Lincoln School in Brookline--some details on the building here. Having for many years designed systems for the Gravesend Inn, our walk-through haunted hotel, I had a special interest in what Punchdrunk is doing, and based on Sarah's recommendation of the company I immediately arranged tickets as soon as I heard about the show (on Derren Brown's blog).

The first indication I had that this would not be a typical theatrical production was the "Cawdor Seeds" website, which appeared before the production opened.  Much like a video game, you have to explore this site to find any information, and the production itself is much the same.  (Some minor spoilers follow).  

After entering the building by following a dark, unmarked alley (in the rainy snow the night I saw it), you pick up your ticket and immediately enter through a pitch black curtain tunnel, with a couple stops for props along the way.  You exit out into a bar area (where Amanda Palmer was playing later that night) and get a (custom Punchdrunk) playing card.  There are a few (acting) characters in the bar, and they eventually call out your group for entry based on the card you were given. Our group entered, and then the host gave each of us a white mask.  One of my only gripes with the show was that the mask wouldn't accommodate my glasses, and since I can't see much of anything without them, I ended up wearing the mask like a baseball hat.  (One audience member asked if the masks were cleaned given the swine flu going around, and the actor assured us that they were.)

The actor separated out a few of us from the back and told us we were the "special" group and took us in a different way.  We came into a sort of hotel lobby room, with an actor there, and this was the first major room where we encountered the incredibly detailed settings for which Punchdrunk is known.  They don't give you any instructions, but I did see a couple actors doing scenes, and a group of audience members following them along.  The actors rarely speak in this production, and it seems that there are sort of two general ways to experience the show: you can follow the actors around the space, or just randomly walk around and encounter them along the way.  I chose the latter approach, and I'm glad (for me) I did.  My friend was running late, and so I was by myself, and sort of just wandered off to see what I could see (fortunately she found me later, I guess because I had the mask on the top of my head I was easy to spot). 

There were several eerily lit, very large rooms where I walked in alone, and felt like I was walking through The Shining.  I wish I had pictures to show you (not only were they prohibited, but it was so dim throughout that I wouldn't have gotten anything without a tripod), because there were so many indescribably stunning vistas. There were rooms full of christmas trees (moved around by an unseen crew), there were sculptural mountain-like things, there were "outdoor" gardens, a bedroom, a taxidermy workshop, and many, many others that you should experience for yourself.  I'm happy that no one ever jumped out at me (although I did get shoved out of the way by Macbeth during one scene), and I'm also glad that the production clearly took audience safety seriously (As someone who has studied live performance audience tragedies, I've left shows and parties because I thought the producers were not doing things safely (I left a Madagascar Institute show/party minutes before the cops arrived to (rightfully) break it up)).

The scenery, assembled by a very large group (PDF program with full credits here) was stunning throughout, both in terms of its epic scale and, simultaneously, level of detail.  One report says they've been working in the space since July or August, and this would not surprise me (the show opened last week).  The lighting (apparently designed by committee?) was spare but worked very well, and the sound, by Stephen Dobbie (who also is the graphic designer) and apparently derived from Bernard Hermann scores, was effectively eerie.  I'm surprised there was no credit for a smell designer, since this sense was exploited very effectively: I smelled mothballs, christmas trees, old clothing, and many others. As far as I could tell, there was no interactive show technology in the show, and while the show worked just great as is, I think this is an area which Punchdrunk could very effectively explore.

This is the second non-traditional Macbeth I've seen in recent years (the other being Teller's production at Two River Theatre Company) and I wholeheartedly recommend this one.  As anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm a big fan of live performance, but I find most theatre pretentious, self-indulgent and worst of all, boring. And I have a feeling that traditional theatre fans will hate this show, and and I think this is a good thing, since there have been probably 10 million productions of Macbeth that would make them happy.  If you have any cultural spirit of adventure at all, you should rush to get tickets for this show soon, since it will surely sell out. The show runs through January 3.