I left the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Avenue at around ten PM after three hours of walking up and down five floors of the building. I walked to the nearest PATH station wearing a white Venetian-styled mask sitting on top of my hat. My hand still felt mentally sticky despite washing them of the chocolate that covered a naked man about forty-five minutes ago. My right foot had a sharp jabbing pain. It was another pretty fun and bizarre Saturday night in the city, although this one more bizarre than usual.
On October 23rd, I saw Sleep No More, a play created by the UK-based avant-garde troupe Punchdrunk. The play devoured the insides of a building and replaced it with a 1920s hotel, mixing it with Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock – and just a little Stanley Kubrick – to create a non-linear retelling of Macbeth. After constant haranguing from my good friend Jeff, I decided to make a trip down from southern Massachusetts to the Chelsea district in Manhattan to see if it really deserved the hype.
There is no sign for the show, and the looks on the people waiting on line to a large midnight brown door showed doubt if this was the right venue at all. From the attire of the people waiting at the front, with women in flowing velvet skirts and men in retro three-piece suits, it was clear I was at the right spot. Despite buying a ticket for a later showing, which cut the length of the performance considerably, I tried my luck by showing up early. Luckily, my plan worked and I found myself holding my ticket – an ace of clubs playing card—underneath the red lights of a bar. One of the ushers, a slender woman in a tight black dressing, handed out the mask I’d be wearing the rest of the night. I asked a bartender from southwest England what the special was — to no surprise, it was absinthe punch. I pounded mine down after hearing the semi-aristocratic and spooky voice of one of the ushers calling for us to the elevator. He said “Welcome to Manderley” to me as I passed by. “Sure thing, Olivier,” I replied.
Another usher wearing a tuxedo spoke out the rules to all the watchers before he pressed the button on the elevator: Wear our mask at all times, don’t speak, and follow the instructions on the ushers wearing black masks. As a joke, he’d let out a few of the audience in groups, closing the doors behind them as he continued. There is a secret sixth floor open to random chosen audience members, but no one got lucky in my group.
He let the remaining watchers on the third floor – a long lobby with a concierge desk in front of a wall filled with hooks for room keys. Bookcases lined the walls and taxidermy animals and other foreboding early 20th century knickknacks sat on the top of bureaus and tables. I looked around until the first actor walked into the room. She played the role of Mrs. Danvers, the antagonist from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in the style taken from Hitchcock’s adaptation of the novel. She slowly moved around holding a tray full of glasses with a pitcher. Oddly enough, that actor was the most attractive of the night, at least to me, despite her white hair and the conservative servant’s dress she wore. I followed her, but she disappeared into a hidden door. The usher blocked me, so as I looked for another room, I took one of the room keys as a consolation prize and pressed on.
I found myself in the balcony overlooking a stage where a pair danced under blue lights. The female dancer – I assumed she was one of the three witches – was very androgynous, and the line blurred even more when she threw off her wig to show her shaven head. She like, many other performers I saw that night, was towering and lithe. Later that night I saw her in a chapel, performing a dance-attack mix attack on an actor kneeling in prayer. The room was so small that I almost took a kick in the chest when penitent actor flipped over the altar table. In another moment of assault, another actor charged through the crowd and jumped between metal walls, propping himself up in quick bursts and then sliding down. Later on the stage turned into a ballroom under lights of a warmer color, and seeing all the dancers move in unison even while performing in very difficult maneuvers was impressive.
It was during one of those dancing scenes that I picked up another keepsake. One of the witches and a male dancer passed a king of clubs to each other sensually from their mouths while performing on a pool t table. They left the card there and I snatched it the moment the crowd left.
I moved on floor by floor, moving away from most of the directions the crowd headed to save for a few times the characters ran to other places for a new scene. When forced into the crowd, I tried my best to fight my habit of pushing through older women, which was hard to do in the middle of a charge up flights of stairs. I was on my own most of the time. I ran through a thicket maze that led to a hospital room where an actor filled a bathtub with water. I touched it after the scene ended – it was cold and had a slight orange hue. Foreboding, that scene definitely was. I saw Banquo’s death and Mrs. Danvers hounding of poor Mrs. de Winter from afar.
Performers randomly interacted with members of the audience. The first one I saw involved a speakeasy bartender motioning a woman from her husband and to the bar. He played a card game – he put down three cards and one on his forehead. She guessed correctly and as a prize, he pulled out a bottle from a locked box and brought her over to an upturned box. He poured two glasses and drank one. He raised his foot on the box and moved closer to her, lifted her mask, and helped her drink the other glass. Later on that night, one of the witches grabbed another audience member and pulled her behind a hidden door.
In my disjointed path through the floors, Lady Macbeth had the most interaction with the audience. She slow danced with a male audience member, and handed her necklace to another person. My personal moment happened right after she let go of the necklace and fell to the floor. She put her hand out in the hopes that someone would pull her up. I stood dead center from her, so I reached out and grabbed her hand. She had stringy blond hair and wore a sequined black dress. I looked right into her pale hazel eyes as she moved in closer. She whispered to me and caressed my mask before kissing it on the right side. Later on, I saw her naked and crying, sitting in the bathtub as she rubbed the orange-tinged water on her body to clean the imaginary bloodstains off her body. Despite that scene, It was the moment when her face was inches away from mine that is embedded into my memory.
The one thing I wanted to make sure to see was an intense verse version of Macbeth’s visit to the witches, which my friend named the “techno orgy scene.” It became my only priority when I reached my last hour of the performance. The sound of throbbing bass coming from the fourth floor above me increased my desperation as I ran through the third, and I got lost in the maze and the hallways on the fifth– I don’t know how I skipped a floor, I wasn’t thinking straight at that point. As soon as I entered the fourth floor, I saw a small group of the audience walk through a slightly opened mirrored door leading into a room with flashing lights pouring out. I walked in and joined them as we surrounded the three witches and Macbeth. The bass wasn’t as loud as in a club, but it had this primal thump. The dancers slithered on top of each other, their clothes disappearing between flashes of light. One of the witches placed a black goat mask on Macbeth, transforming him into a clubbing Baphomet. The music turned brutal and the lights flicked rapidly. One witch held a bloodied baby doll in her arms, while another held up a small miniature tree as a priest would hold up a Catholic host. I turned to see the third witch pouring a black liquid on Macbeth’s chest. It trailed all the way down. It was around this time I did a conservative Jersey fist pump to the beat for a few seconds before anyone noticed it. The lights cut out and the music stopped. When the lights came on again, the only thing left was the baby and the tree. Seeing as it would be impossible – and insane – to steal the baby, I took the tree as a consolation prize. At least, I tried to. It fell out of my pocket on my way to the grand finale.
The entire audience returned to the stage to see Macbeth in the gallows. I saw the scene from the balcony next to Mrs. de Winter, rubbing her now pregnant belly, and the austerely posed Mrs. Danvers. The lights were deep blue, and when I peered down I finally realized just how many of us had walked through the five floors. The floor, packed with the white masked voyeurs, watched as our tragic hero stood upon the table – originally made for the banquet seen where the ghost of Banquo drives Macbeth mad—used as a makeshift gallows. After he made his last shout before the pulling of the lever, there was no sound save for clapping – no whistles or hoots or shouts. Even after the usher showed people the way back to the lounge, they made no sound. It was a quick shuffling of mutes.
The thing stuck to my mind, even as I write this, is that a persistent feeling of walking into a house of ghosts. Don’t confuse it with the feeling you get walking through a haunted house. Walking alongside them, hearing them whisper and at times making physical contact that serves as a reminder of the barrier of the scene that is unfolding. I hope I get to see something as mind-bending a feeling like sometime in the near future. For the time being, I’m going to go watch Hitchcock. I wonder what they would do with Vertigo.