(Punchdrunk) There's nothing original in acknowledging that some of the most powerful art operates like dreams. When our messy tumble of subconscious stimulus is re-appropriated in ways both recognizable but subverted, the effect is disorienting and often terrifying, sometimes more so when we thought that imagery was supposed to be banal and calming.
That effect is the thrust of surrealist art, and while it's most difficult to accomplish in the theatre – what with those seats and prosceniums always maintaining at least some distance – the most recent installation produced by British theatre innovators Punchdrunk and currently showing in New York City, is as close to immersing an audience into a shared dream (or nightmare, depending on your sensibility) experience as you're likely to find.
The company's basic mission is to create immersive theatrical experiences where the audience can roam at will through an expansive space, encountering staggering amounts of details both in the design and in traveling performances, all the while free to engage with anything at all, from the contents of desk drawers to the beds, to jars of candies. Punchdrunk's newest piece, Sleep No More, is an exemplary manifestation of this aim; the experience is a pure visceral delight, as audience wanders the five floors of a Chelsea warehouse painstakingly converted to "The McKittrick Hotel," which takes its name from Hitchcock's Vertigo but its design from a variety of other source material, most notably Macbeth, but also less noticeable influences like rural Catholicism and a slew of other Americana pre-WWII film genres.
First, a basic layout: Even before audiences collect tickets, they walk through long, nearly pitch-black hallways. Afterwards, they're directed to an atmospheric lounge draped in red curtains, where a whispery MC beckons them, group by group, into a separate chamber where they're given long-nosed carnival masks. The rules are simple: no cell phones, keep the mask on, and NO TALKING (which, believe it or not, it seems everyone followed). Then up an elevator, and the game begins. Wandering on what the host describes as an "ideally individual experience," audiences then meander through rooms of various sizes and intricacy – some are huge spaces designed as a cemetery built upon a bombed-out castle, others are claustrophobic rooms with a psychologist's signature couch and a desk. Throughout each floor is an ever-present sound design that typically plays as a grotesque cinema score and is frequently interrupted with spooky sound effects.
The experience is extremely cinematic, but the effect is hardly one of detached admiration. Instead, it feels as though you've been dropped into a hodgepodge of surrealistic and grotesque film imagery – early instruments of brain surgery, padded rooms, empty ghost town streets – and forced to confront your own associations and fears. Meanwhile, you're confronted at each step with audience filtering through at their own rhythms, but adding to the disorientation is that every person wears one of these bizarre masks. The effect only grows creepier the longer you stick around.
And then there are the performances. Ostensibly a dumb-show (nearly wordless) telling of the Macbeth story, characters move with sufficient angst throughout the space, generally causing audiences to rush after them until they stop to enact some other stylized expression of despair. When performers interact, they tend to engage in heavily choreographed combat or love-making -- the precision and lugubriousness only adding to the overall effect. By the end of the experience (you can wander up to three hours, depending on when you arrive, and the finale takes place in the basement), the performers have all gathered together in more violent displays to match the violent heart of Shakespeare's play, but it only underscores the one downside to the performances, which is that they tend to gather a large group of audience and limit the lonely feeling that wandering alone engenders.
I've seen stuff like this before, but never on a scale nearly this meticulous. The direction and design by Punchdrunk's primary members is exemplary in its commitment to detail, especially because that detail never expresses a clear intent, but rather maintains its intensely evocative nature throughout. We're fortunate enough in New York that the installation has grown popular enough to warrant a significant extension, but there ought be hope that the show – which was premiered in America in Boston last year – can move on to other cities. There's nothing topical or regional or ideological about the work, but instead it's powerful stuff that ought be experienced by anyone who knows what it feels like to wake up with the sweats and a vague sense of having just glimpsed into the sound and the fury.
Punchdrunk's 'Sleep No More' is running through September 5, 2011 at "The McKittrick Hotel."