Sleep No More

A Punchdrunk theatrical presentation by Emursive running through July 9 (extended).

Atmosphere only gets you so far, and with few exceptions, atmosphere was all I got from Sleep No More, a site-specific theatrical presentation in an extravagantly modded-out warehouse on 27th Street. Performers slink down the dark corridors in between elaborately choreographed scenes in the elaborately decorated rooms—followed all the while by a free-roaming audience wearing creepy white plague masks—and it’s all very moody and portentous. Honestly, though, once I got over the novelty of the thing, that moody portentousness started to feel hollow.

I hesitate to be too catty on this point, however, because I suspect part of the problem was a simple lack of compatibility between me and the show. Yes, audience members are free to wander wherever they like, but to get much out of the story, they really ought to follow the performers to catch the scenes. This leads to mobs of people tailing the characters through the building, rushing en masse up staircases, and squeezing tightly into too-small rooms, and my inclination, when faced with these scenarios, was always to flinch and head off in the opposite direction. Occasionally, I’d sigh and find a place in the back of the room, near a doorway, but this didn’t always afford me a great view, and I burned out on the whole claustrophobic ordeal after about an hour, so I’ll readily admit that I didn’t get the complete Sleep No More experience. That being said, what I did experience struck me as rather shallow.

From what I’ve read, Sleep No More loosely retells the story of Macbeth in its sexed-up, 1920s-era setting, but worrying too much about plot is a mistake. Knowing Shakespeare’s play well, I spent entirely too much mental energy trying to figure out which of the men was Macduff and why the witches were appearing to Lady Macbeth (well, I think she was Lady Macbeth) and whether the Last Supper–style banquet scene was supposed to depict the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. I enjoyed everything much more once I stopped trying to piece it all together and just let it roll over me.

The performers are less actors than dancers, executing athletic choreography with maximum melodrama: a man beating his chest, rending his garments, and mock-hanging himself in a graveyard; a couple conducting a swoopy, passionate pas de deux in a hotel lobby; a less passionate, more violent pair engaging in an artful fistfight in a rustic pool hall; a blood-drenched, strobe-lit witches’ mass, complete with throbbing techno music and a naked man with a bull head. (Yeah, I don’t know what that was about at all.) Sleep No More has its pulpy charms—the dancers are talented, and the intimacy of the setting makes everything more intense—but a cohesive, thoughtful narrative it’s not.

The decor is similarly superficial: impressive at first glance but not capable of standing up to too much attention. It’s quite evocative—a lavish hotel lobby; a hall packed with unusually creepy taxidermy; an old-fashioned, crucifix-bedecked hospital room; an amber-lit darkroom with crime scene photographs hanging from the ceiling—but the more you poke around, the more it starts to feel like, well, a set, its components thrown together from flea markets and estate sales, chosen less for what they might say about the characters or the story and more for what looks cool.

I’m being unfair, I know, but Sleep No More disappointed me. I think if my expectations had been lower, I would have gotten more out of it. An overwrought, quasi-literary haunted house could definitely be a lot of fun—but not so much if you’re psyched for an intense, poetic tragedy. Don’t promise me Shakespeare and then give me a flat, gothy pageant!