Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"When shall we three meet again?"

Recently, Solange on Theater (SOT) asked the 16-year-old offspring and her best guy friend what show they would like to see for Christmas.

SOT had envisioned her childhood - perhaps the New York City Ballet's ever-wondrous Nutcracker or the power and joy of Handel's Messiah. If the ballet seemed too juvenile and the oratorio too classical, then possibly a Broadway show, preceded by an elegant dinner and a stroll through Rockefeller Center to take in the tree and the lights.


Little did she realize she would be plunged into a world of blood and madness as the high schoolers said they would like to go to Sleep No More, the two-year-old interactive theater performance based on Macbeth.

Ballet and song of a different kind.

Instead of Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, the three of us headed toward a former warehouse on West 27th Street and Tenth Avenue. Sleep No More is a production of Britain's Punchdrunk company, which has been devising immersive theater experiences since 2000 in environments that aren't traditional theaters, a concept called site-specific.

The converted warehouse is called the McKittrick Hotel, supposedly a luxury hotel that was shuttered in the 1930s and re-opened for this show. We lined up briefly under the streetlights, outside the black entrance door, as a bouncer marked with an X the hands of our underage non-drinkers.

Upon entering, down a dimly-lit hallway, we are told to check coats and bags ($4 charge), given a playing card as a ticket and ushered into a red-lit bar/lounge called Manderley (not so much a nod to Macbeth as to the Gothic novel and film Rebecca).

Our guides are rather arch in manner. We are given white masks (see photo above), told to wear them at all times and that there is to be no talking during the performance. It's a film noir atmosphere stirred with a touch of unease.

We are guided onto an elevator, told to explore and that "fortune favors the bold." Once off the elevator, I began letting my eyes adjust to the dim light as eerie music filled the air. Feeling my way down the hallways felt like a haunted house set and the sounds added to the sense of foreboding, but I knew there would be nothing as trite as ghoulies jumping out of the shadows.

There are four floors and dozens of rooms decorated in time-warp, hallucinatory fashion. The first room I entered had a double row of clawfoot bathtubs and resembled a 1920s hospital. A young woman in a gray nurse's uniform was washing a couple of shirts in one of the tubs and we masked voyeurs gathered to watch. Our pale uniform faces rinsed away all expression and identification. We were not tempted to look at each other.

She moved quickly out of the room and we followed, but I went down another corridor. Our group had been split up and one of the hints about the show is that it is best to explore alone. Each person has a unique experience. I wandered through many rooms - a bedroom where a woman was writing a letter, a tailor's shop where a man was meticulously sewing tags on a piece of clothing. The letter-writing woman entered and they danced. He wrapped her in a bolt of cloth, then unwrapped her.

However, I seemed to be wandering through a lot of rooms with much furniture and decor but no people and after the first half hour, was looking at my watch. Then things got active. Themes of blood and water - washing away blood -- recurred as a couple (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) in a bedroom tried to sluice away guilt and murder. There was some nudity but somehow, behind our masks, we were each individually watching and there was no creepy crowd feeling, although there were at least two dozen people there. It was almost sacred.

"Out, out damn spot." 
Then the couple began a wild dance - on the huge bed with its brown sheets, along the piled-up suitcases and brown dressers against the wall. They flung each other down and around, even up against the walls. The lines from Macbeth ran through my head -"Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!/Macbeth doth murder sleep.'" I saw two tortured people, demons wakefully haunted by bloody deeds, trapped in a hellish storm of their own devising, and I was brought to tears.

"Still it cried 'Sleep no more!' to all the house."
Following crowds and characters, I came upon a large room with low stone walls and trees. Here amid flashes of strobe lighting was a witches' sabbath of desperate eroticism as Macbeth and the three witches communed with the dark forces of the supernatural. All the symbolism of the scenes in Macbeth was there -- the bloody child (a baby doll, of course), a naked man wearing a donkey's head, the trees of Birnam Wood -- astonishing, sensual, brilliant.

As time wound toward 10 p.m., black-masked guides took up positions on the stairs, forcing us to go down to the main floor and a large open room where a stage was set with a banquet scene. Macbeth was at the head of the table and his male and female guests were arraying along it, almost dancing in place to music. And there was the ghost of Banquo, the last bloody-faced man, haunting the host at what becomes his last meal.

The evening ended at the Manderley Bar and our group of three reunited, although I had run into the two others along the way. All the way home, we compared notes and impressions, describing the personal, individual drama we had witnessed. It wasn't the usual Christmas show, but distinct and memorable nonetheless.

Note: this blog post is in memory of Pam Leven, a writer friend taken from us suddenly and too soon just five days ago. Now her story is ended, but while she lived she wrote it with verve, great humor and style. I'll always remember our adventures, Pam. It is so hard to say "farewell."



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