Theatre Review: Punchdrunk’s SLEEP NO MORE Is A Million Different Things

I have no idea how to write about this experience. 

I've been trying to write about my visit to The McKittrick Hotel for Punchdrunk's Sleep No More for a couple of weeks now. The key is that I don't want to spoil anyone, and yet the very idea of spoilers feels impossible when talking about Sleep No More, as it provides a different experience for everyone who visits it.

The basics: Sleep No More is an interactive, immersive theatre and dance performance installed over six floors at New York's The McKittrick Hotel (a venue established in three adjoining Chelsea warehouses for the express purpose of the performance). It's been running for three years and it's ultimately an interpretation of Macbeth, performed wordlessly amid a portentous noir score. There are seeds of Hitchcock and Argento and Poe scattered among the Shakespeare. Visitors, masked and asked to remain silent, are free to wander the hotel at their own pace. We're encouraged to explore, and visitors may follow one actor as he flees a silently emotive scene and flies up several flights of stairs, or stay and watch the performer who remains; we can peer into empty rooms and start opening drawers or moving books.

Sleep No More is not a haunted house. No one's jumping out and grabbing you; no chainless chainsaws will be pressed against that vulnerable spot behind your knees. It's as scary or not scary as you want it to be. You can meander aimlessly or duck out of a room if it gets too intense. For instance, there is a room full of candy. There is also a devil orgy room. I spent a lot of time in the devil orgy room and never found the candy room, which feels like a metaphor for something, probably, but definitely not for my life. You can also leave the experience any time you'd like and go chill in the bar on the first floor, where no one has to wear a mask, you're free to speak and nothing particularly weird is happening, other than its decided '20s atmosphere and some singular musical acts. 

So how did my experience go? My friend Caitlin, who attended the performance for the third time that night, gave me two pieces of advice beforehand: be bold, and if someone makes eye contact with you, hold that eye contact. So I did. The purpose of the masks, beyond differentiating cast from audience, is to free us, to allow us to feel anonymous and uninhibited. Our group split apart almost instantly, and I dove in, ready to be bold. I tried on clothes; I poured a drink of something unknown from a decanter and threw it back (it turned out to be dyed water; I was hoping for whiskey). What I loved best about Sleep No More is the same thing that made Gone Home the first video game I've played through since I was kid: the freedom to explore anything, to look anywhere. I looked everywhere. I opened every drawer and rummaged through the myriad piles of dusty, creepy old junk. I flipped through every book; I moved props around. I was your basic set designer's nightmare. 


Which brings me to my next point: from a purely stage managerial standpoint, Sleep No More is an outright marvel. It would have to run for years in order to make the elaborate intricacies of its venue worth it. Caitlin told me she saw something new, had a new experience, every time she visited Sleep No More, and I don't doubt it. I was there for the maximum time - three hours - and never left to return to the bar or use the restroom. I examined every inch I could, and I know I must have absorbed only a fraction of what Sleep No More has to offer. 

But I'm still confident I did it right. Caitlin's advice about holding eye contact served me well; twice during the event, a performer took my hand and pulled me into a locked room for one of the rare "one-on-one experiences." I don't want to describe those here, because I'd hate to ruin a revelation for someone looking forward to attending in the future, but here are a few things that happened during these moments: 

I danced. I was kissed a few different times by two different, very attractive people. I was given a glass of something and told to drink it, so I did. It was milk, and I don't like milk, but I drank it anyway. I was silent through all of this, peering out from behind my mask until it was removed by the performers, and each of these scenes felt strange and intimate and intense. My heart raced the entire time; I felt nervous and exhilarated. In the final moments - although I did not know they were the final moments, not wearing a watch or holding my phone - a handsome man held my hand and ran me down five flights of stairs, then whisked me into a room where music was playing. He removed my mask, kissed me and said, "I hope you enjoyed your stay at The McKittrick Hotel. You were wonderful." We were in the bar, and I'd just been escorted out after the finale. I'd had no idea.

There's so much more to say about Sleep No More, but I don't know how to say it without clumsily stumbling over the experience for someone else. All I can say is that you should go, and if you do: be bold. And if someone makes eye contact with you, hold it.