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September 25th, 2011

Sleep No More

I went to see Sleep No More last night and it was one of the most incredible things I've seen. A wordless and rambling production of Macbeth set in a Noir hotel, it's alternately roaring, incoherent, moving, shocking and exquisitely grotesque. Ballet replaces language, and the sets cover nearly 100,000 square feet of intricately constructed sets and spaces that you're allowed to fondle and nearly twenty actors rush from space to space, putting on urgent scenes.

Some spaces seem merely to exist for texture and mood. The illumination is so minimal I often put my hands to a wall and crawled so as to not risk a tumble. A ruined garden with three statues (or was it still-life artists draped in drapery? I didn't want to touch them to find out, but I stared closely at the drapes over their mouths and didn't see breath stir the fabric.) Up and down at least five stories of stairs and steps through hidden doors and stair cases, after an hour of chasing scenes, running from place to place, I was exhausted but my stamina kept me moving.

There are very large stories of regicide, guilt and lust, and there are very small stories of voyeurism theft and love unrequited. All are equally enthralling and you ricochet between characters and tales at a breakneck pace. It's impossible to see anything in the first viewing, it would at least three, and actors alternate roles in performances making this even more exquisite to return to, a hypnotic fever dream that repeats with no rhyme or reason but with a dreadfully precise tempo.

And the sound design is glorious - each space has its own soundtrack, and the actors seem to use it for cues - pay close attention to their actions and the music. Dreadful thundering slabs of strings crush a room while a man is shaved closely by another and the way the actors exchange glances you might imagine anything could go wrong at any one moment, and when you're standing no more than three feet away from a man when he looks up at the barber, his lips trembling, eyes watery, mouth open to scream but unable to since the blade is at his throat and the scene pauses while the strings keep climbing, climbing, climbing... anything can happen.

At other points, every gesture made is mimicked in the sound, when a glass of wine is poured, countless marbles tumble in the soundtrack. When an actor makes an appearance through a hidden door, the bang of the door mutes an uptempo ragtime tune and brings in those slabs of strings again.

These transitions are vital and when actors argue, and fight, the dance is tightly choreographed and the actors rush at each other, the space opens up as the audience gives them room rushing backwards, like a gang that was goading a fight and on getting it, rushes backwards to take its due amusement. At other points, a  lone actor will dance, expressing anguish, rage or impotence in the grand ball-room and these are just are exciting.

And by the end, I knew a lot of secrets about the space, how to get very quickly from place to place, what floors were more for scenery and which ones were vital - what drawers held the stationary with letters from Lady Macbeth, where I could find notes written from the girl in the bedroom about the voyeur. Pick up any of the countless phones - they are heavy, and full of a dialtone I no longer hear. Such is the detail in the sets - sit in any room and begin to paw through the funeral records, the tailors orders, the birth records, and you will find them properly laid out.

In the end, we the audience are just as important to the show - a sea of white masks (for everyone is masked) - and the actors stare at us at times with fear, as we witness their acts, and at times for succor, with yearning, as if for understanding or company. We are as ghosts caught in a timeless eternity, watching moments unfolding, seeing partial scenes that seem disconnected from the grand symphony but no less moving for that. Within the first hour, I had become a character in the play, moved along chaotically, a puppet with broken strings that jerked only spasmodically. For the first time, I felt the fear and confusion, the awe and glee, a ghost might feel at witnessing the acts of the living, taking cold comfort, feeling dread and smirking behind opaque masks at the actions of the living, knowing things they didn't, and being unable to act to make any difference whatsoever.

This is amazing art. Music, dance, acting, writing, set-production - the level of detail is mind boggling. Absolutely the impressive work of art as a gestalt of styles and mediums (I don't know if its theater, or ballet, or performance art or what!) I've seen in a long, long, long time.

A few tips if you go to see it - don't try to stick together, follow at your own pace and interest, it's a solitary work of art, loose yourself in it. Be ready to move around a LOT and hydrate and eat before you go. And don't take a break at the bar. It's a really nice concept, but the bar destroys the immersive experience (at least it did for me). And lastly, go early, like, 7:00 or 7:30 but no later. You want to spend at least two and a hours hours if not the full three horus in there.

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