Sleep No More

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Sunday October 18, 2009

Front: Fernanda Prata, Stephanie Eaton, and Geir Hytten, who plays Macbeth in "Sleep No More.’’ Back: Careena Melia and Conor Doyle. (photo: Stephen Dobbie And Lindsay Nolin)
Front: Fernanda Prata, Stephanie Eaton, and Geir Hytten, who plays Macbeth in "Sleep No More.’’ Back: Careena Melia and Conor Doyle. (photo: Stephen Dobbie And Lindsay Nolin)  

Early in my relationship with Sleep No More, the spectacular theater experience the British troupe Punchdrunk and American Repertory Theatre has brought to a vacant Brookline school, I found myself peering down at a ballroom from an upstairs window. In the center of the ballroom were pairs of dancers surrounded the white-masked audience members. (Everyone in the audience wears masks.) As they danced to ghostly big-band music, the moment recalls a scene from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut; and it's surreal and gorgeously theatrical. If Kubrick had directed theater pieces no doubt they would be like this one.

And as I wandered through the numerous dark, foreboding rooms, another Kubrick film -- The Shining -- came to mind. I half-expected to wander into those creepy-looking twins and the Overlook Hotel's bloody elevators. What I did find was a series of meticulously appointed rooms that appeared to fall out of a Hammer horror movie: A dimly lit bedchamber with an old-fashioned bathtub dominating the room; a dungeon-like space completely dark save for a spotlight on what appears to be a dead lamb; an interrogation room right of Abu Ghraib prison; a child's bedroom; a bar (replete with bartender) in a stable; a maze of sheets hung on clotheslines; a cozy corner where an actor sits at a desk shining glass eyeballs; and an enormous ballroom in which sit 20-foot pine trees that dance with the actors.

Why the trees move has to do with the production's source material -- Shakespeare's Macbeth -- which unfolds in a non-verbal manner throughout the school. Open a door and you'll find yourself (as I did) in Macbeth's bedchamber where he and Lady Macbeth plot the murder of Duncan. Macbeth leaves, only to come back moments later with bloody hands, which Lady Macbeth cleanses in a bathtub. While nothing -- save a shout or two -- is spoken by the actors, the action is telegraphed through stylized movement and ritual. While something may be lost in the unspoken poetry, there's something extraordinary going on in this deconstruction. The effect is like being lost in a dreamscape informed by the play. Part haunted house, part art installation, part Art Decoed Jacobean melodrama, Sleep No More is far more than a theatrical gimmick -- this is immersion theater taken to level of high art. It an experience impossible to shake, even days later.

Robert McNeil in Sleep No More.
Robert McNeil in Sleep No More.  

A solitary experience

Part of its beauty is that everyone's experience is different. It is best to view alone as not to break its mesmerizing spell with conversation. (There is a no talking policy, and, honestly, you want to slap those who do.) It was fun to watch other audience members chase actors from room-to-room in order to fit the narrative together. But since there's no obvious logic to the proceedings, it was equally easy to stroll from room-to-room as if in a museum. Eventually you come across a scene from the play, which seems to be performed in a constant loop: a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth obsessively writing on a blackboard (this is, after all, a grammar school); King Duncan being shaved in his dimly-lit bed chamber by a manservant with a straight-edge razor; the climatic battle with the 20-foot pines moving amongst the actors accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's score to Vertigo; or a spectral tableaux, exquisitely performed in slow motion, where the dead mingle with the living to Macbeth's horror.

Virtually everything about Sleep No More is meant to be off-putting, from being shoved off an elevator into a darkened, empty hallway to encountering images such as a room full of six bathtubs, one half-filled with bloody water, another with a live eel. The blasting music cannot be ignored, be it the drone of industrial white noise that's punctuated with Big Band music and snatches of Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock films played with digital clarity.

There's little doubt that Hitchcock connection is a strong one -- he's the other filmmaker who comes to mind while experiencing Sleep No More. Most specifically the scene in Psycho where Vera Miles explores the house where Norman Bates lives. Like her, we wander from room-to-room, observing things and proceeding undaunted no matter what horror may lurk in the dark. The show takes full advantage of our fear and fascination with what we cannot see. It's like being part of every cheesy horror movie you've ever seen, all of which -- like this production -- owe a debt to Hitchcock's genius.

It is also performed by a cast of actors who appear to be in a collective trance. Geir Hytten plays Macbeth with a joyless fatalism, while Sarah Dowling's Lady Macbeth is one part provocateur, one part victim; and they are electrifying in their scenes together. Though equally well-thought, it was also a bit difficult to judge other individual performances because the play comes at you in sections. Who was the actress who dances so such sexual ferocity to a Glenn Miller's version of Moonlight Becomes You (crooned by Skip Nelson)? I have no idea, having simply pulled back a curtain to find her in mid-dance. I was able to see the full dance later. But that's what makes Sleep No More such an evocative experience -- the sense that we are part of a collective dream.

That inspired choreography is by Maxine Doyle. She also shares directorial credit with Felix Barrett, who is also responsible for the inspired designs that turn some 40-rooms of the school into a dark, eerie Dunsinane Castle. (This is a place you wouldn't want to be locked in overnight.) David Israel Reynoso's costumes convey 1930s elegance with a distinct decadent bent; and Stephen Dobbie's soundscapes, with its wonderfully overripe mix of musical styles, immeasurably add to the sense of total immersion.

In her brief remarks following the opening night performance ART's artistic director Diane Paulus said that upon seeing Punchdrunk in London a few years before she is never able to see theater the same way again. Having been lost for the previous two-and-a-half hours in their genius, it was hard not to agree with her assessment. But don't take my (or her) word for it -- go for yourself; you'll likely want to return (as I do) a second or third time.

Sleep No More continues through January 4, 2010 at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline Village. For more information visit the American Repertory Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].