In my day, I’ve seen a lot of performances and shows of many different genres, ideas, and themes, yet none can hold a candle to what I witnessed in the McKittrick Hotel.
My dance teacher of the past four years had hyped this show up for us, talking about it nonstop and explaining to us his experience with the show. The show, Sleep No More, was supposed to run in New York City for about three months. This year marked it’s sixth year running in the abandoned warehouse in Chelsea.
Sleep No More is a very unique performance, and I wasn’t completely sure what I was getting myself into when we first arrived and waited in the line outside. It is an immersive experience of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in a 1930s hotel. The warehouse is five stories tall and the inside is a dimly-lit rat maze designed for getting lost. Actors move throughout the rooms, acting out their story and performing exquisite pieces for the enjoyment of the following, masked audience.
When explaining this show later, I equate it to a Choose Your Own Adventure Story. Each audience member will have their very own experience of the show and no two audience members will see all the same scenes. The show runs twice, beginning at about eight, and finishes its final run with a death scene at about eleven-thirty. The groups are let into the building in fifteen minute increments, beginning at seven. We were lucky to arrive after seven and be one of the first groups admitted to the hotel.
It begins abruptly, with a man speaking dramatically about the rules: do not touch the actors, unless they offer a hand or grab you, do not speak, absolutely no use of cellphones, to stay by yourself, and not to ask for guidance. You’re on your own. He then gave us masks and sent us on our way, telling us “you have two choices; up, or down. Good Luck.” We took our chances and threw ourselves down the rabbit hole.
The second we stepped into the narrow stairwell it felt as though we were in a haunted house. It was dark and every floor was filled with the unexpected. The first floor I ventured to was the very top floor, decorated as some kind of asylum. One room was a padded room with a design in nails hammered into the far wall, one had rows of dirty bathtubs, one filled with grimy water, one had rows of metal-framed beds, and another was a smoke-filled room decorated with dead trees resembling a maze.
The first actor I found was an old woman dressed as a nurse. She led us to a room labeled “Reception” in which she began to cut illustrations of the human body out of an old book.
What struck me in this room was the level of detail the set designers went into. Each book, each trinket, even the hand written letters completely fell into the story. Every detail was thought about, including the items found in drawers, chests, and trunks. It was as though the audience members stepped into a completely new world.
The actors, who did some of the best acting and some of the best dancing I have ever had the pleasure to witness, often did not speak. They would whisper to each other at a volume that was too quiet for the audience to distinguish what they were saying, they would deliver private monologues to a single person in a small room, or they would scream. It was very jarring to be lost in a room filled with trees, and to hear the voice of Lady Macbeth in a blood-curdling scream about how she wants to die from one of the seemingly hidden stairwells.
The first time I went through the story, I went far too quickly, only watching a scene for a few minutes before moving on. We had been told to be aggressive, to follow actors, to sit down at a table if an actor was sitting there, to be simultaneously in the way, but also out of the way. I did not do any of this, until I stumbled upon the witches.
The three witches are usually three women, but for whatever reason (that I am fully in support of ) one of the witches of the McKittrick was played by a man. They were so mesmerizing to watch. They had the most interesting choreography, moving quickly, then stopping to sit down and slowly scan the audience with smiles on their faces that looked sinister and pleasant at the same time. I was enthralled by the male witch. Everything he did, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I decided he would be the character I would follow.
The room we were in was decorated as a hotel reception, a man dressed as a bellhop behind the long desk in the corner. He began to dance with the witches. It was as though they were fighting him, and he was struggling to survive, until it suddenly stopped. The witches left the bellhop as the two women left and the man took somebody by the hand and led them to the table the three had been dancing around earlier. He placed them in a chair facing a dark stage and leapt up to begin a lip-sync to a woman’s voice. It was such a strange moment, especially after the fight-dancing that had just occurred. This went on for several minutes in which I occasionally looked at the bellhop character, to find him silently sobbing by himself. The dedication these actors gave was incredible.
When the scene had ended, the witch took me by the hand and led me to the edge of the room where a few telephone booths were set up. One of the women had returned and they began an exquisite duet. At one point they held themselves up on the small seats and danced on the ceiling. She left promptly after the duet, taking about half the audience with her. Those of us left witnessed another telephone booth duet between the witch and the bellhop. As the bellhop was slowly walking to the phone booth, I was in his way. He gently put one hand on my hip, the other on my back and slowly, gently pushed my to the side. I had been in another actor’s way earlier, as he frantically searched for something, and he had shoved me roughly aside. I was again hit with the dedication the actors held. Even the way they move through the audience is completely in character. This duet was even better. They played with sexuality, almost kissing or putting each other in very sexual positions before returning to the dance. At the end of this, the witch turned back to me, grabbed my hand and led us to another room on another floor.
I was already winded from chasing Lady MacBeth up all five flights of stairs before losing her earlier on, so this sprint was completely uncalled for.
This room was decorated with dim lighting and cardboard boxes piled floor to ceiling making a hallway to a card table I had seen earlier in my journey when three men played a card game around it. After another wall of boxes, there was a pool table he began to dance on. This choreography was like an exorcism, but in an enchanting way. The way he danced was absolutely intoxicating at all times and I found it difficult to look away. He was, once again, joined by another witch, and the piece they performed was so powerful, as they hefted and threw each other around. At one point, she picked him up and shoved him into one of the cardboard boxes located right next to me. She then danced a solo that was so beautiful, I forgot he was curled in the tiny box to my left. When he dramatically dropped out, it scared the shit out of me. She helped him out of the box and they parted ways. I stayed hot on his tail, as he would sometimes stop, begin sprinting, or even fall. His falls were so realistic and he threw himself into them so much they looked painful and horrendous, until he popped right back up and kept going forward.
He led us to the bottom floor, where all the characters met up and performed a ball room scene, all dancing with one another. This was the first time all the characters interacted together. It was a beautiful scene, like the masquerade in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. They eventually broke out, some actors dissolving into the audience, some possibly staying behind. I lost track of everyone else as the witch approached me once again. He offered me his hand and we began to slow dance closely. I was internally freaking out a lot at this point, even more so when he spun me around, expertly dipping me and placing a kiss on my collarbone. We finished our dance with him kissing my hand and dancing with the rest of the cast again.
As the actors finished the dance and swiftly moved to the next piece of their stories, he grabbed my hand once more and pulled me with him.
We ended up back in the hotel reception room. He took a second, staring at himself in the mirror, occasionally looking at the audience in the mirror behind him. He slowly turned to me, taking my hand and pulling me slightly forward out of the crowd before loosening his suit jacket and turning around, wishing for me to take it off. I took it off, holding it in my arms until he took it back and hung it up with his newly removed waistcoat. He then gestured for me to take off his suspenders. As soon as I pushed them down, he began to gesture to his pants. I was still unable to speak, and so I pantomimed as best as I could that I had absolutely no idea what he wanted. He simply kept the same gesture, pointing to the front of his pants. I went out on a limb and unbuttoned them. It was apparently what he had wanted, as he smiled at me and took my hand, yet again.
He led us through a new maze, rooms and corridors I had never been in before. It was amazing, as I figured I had seen everything as I wandered around aimlessly for about two hours, but there was so much more to this hotel I doubt I could’ve discovered on my own. We walked for several minutes until we came into another room, completely unknown to me.
Standing in the room was a tall, elegant woman, dressed in a gorgeous red silk gown, heavily breathing at an excessive volume. The other two witches entered with their audience members, as black masked staff members lined us up along the periphery. The three witches began dancing savagely, the two women finishing to undress the man. When he was stripped to nothing but his underwear, he wandered off behind, what looked like a short wall, leaving the women to dance with one another. All of a sudden, the lights kicked off to be replaced by a slower strobe, laser lights, and bass-boosted rave music.
The dancing during this scene was absolutely breathtaking, highlighted by a strobe light becoming steadily faster. Before I realized, all three witches were dancing, the man completely naked, but wearing a goat’s head. The women were throwing blood, dumping it on one another and themselves, whipping their soaked hair all around. Another man joined them, facilitating the lifts and tosses as one of the women began to nurse an insanely realistic looking baby.
Before this, I had never seen a show with live nudity such as this. I never avoided shows like that, as I am not bothered by nudity. When explaining the show to my mother, She asked if I felt weird about watching people dance while naked, and my answer was a resounding “no.” The artistry that was behind the nudity made it something so different than the Fifty Shades of Grey sensuality. It was raw and had a sinister air about it that was such a strange feeling to witness.
From there we were lead by my go-to witch to a tiny bathroom, where he took a prolonged shower, looking as though he was on the edge of death, sitting under the stream. He slowly got dressed with the help of an audience member, who just so happened to be Ella, a fellow student and a very good friend of mine, and took us on another journey to the final scene of the show.
The final scene saw everyone, cast members and audience alike, gathered in the huge ballroom, this time the focus was directed to the long table on a platform that ran along the back of the room. Unfortunately, I was on the side of the table, meaning I could only see a few characters as they moved in slow motion, eating, drinking, and whispering to one another. This means I was also witness to the secret behind the breathtaking final moments that would have been incredible from the front of the table; The characters slowly lowered themselves, hiding behind their chairs and under the table, three men left standing. A noose was lowered from seemingly nowhere. One of the men, presumably MacBeth himself, stood on the table, while the others put the noose around his neck. I watched as they attached a hidden hook that was behind the noose to a harness the man in question was wearing, before they sent him swinging. Being unfamiliar with the story of MacBeth, I was unsure who this character was, but I heard many audience members after the show fearing for the actor’s life, as the effect was completed so smoothly, they feared he was actually being hanged. The show ended with the man swinging from the ceiling while the wood creaked loudly. The lights went out and the actors descended, I was grabbed again by the witch I had been following faithfully and he pulled me along in the dark. I was exceedingly confused, as I believed the show was over, but here I was, being led again. All of a sudden, I was being greeted by women in a parlor, them saying how worried they were of our absence, while a jazz singer stood on a stage and belted. He pulled me to a corner, pulling up my mask and kissing my cheek quickly before disappearing behind a curtain. I was left in a daze. I stood there for several minutes, without a single clue of what I was supposed to do next. Later, my friends also in attendance said my face was quite funny, slack-jawed, with my eyes wide open. It was so jarring to be shoved back into the real world, stepping back into the jovial place where we had begun our journey. It felt as though I was rudely awoken from a dream that hadn’t finished yet. It still feels like a dream, one that I never wanted to end, one that will forever require my revisiting to figure out what was reality.
That is the effect of a show as spectacular as this one. It left every person in attendance with a need for more, to see the entire story, as told by every character and reveal as much as possible about what they had just witnessed. I am still unsatisfied with my own experience, as I felt I needed to see more and more and more and more than I did. I think even if I had seen as much as possible, I would still be filled with insatiable need for the show. I have seen many of Shakespeare’s plays brought to life, I have even been in a few, and I have, of course, read a decent amount, but that may be the only way to truly experience a story such as this, especially the tragedy of MacBeth, as the ambience was dark and unforgiving, the perfect mood for a show such as this. “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece”, a line said by Lady MacDuff in act 2, scene 4, is the best summation I could produce for this, well, masterpiece.
The only way to experience this show is to throw oneself into it, headfirst, and that may be the only way to speak about Sleep No More; fully, headfirst, and with a sense of longing that can only really be understood by fellow audience members.