Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review: Sleep No More


I step into a room built of cardboard boxes. At its center stand two tables, for cards and pool, and making my way between I investigate the far corner. A bar. No sooner do I peek behind than its tender vaults from the shadows. The figure backs me around the bar and once more behind, pours drinks for the two men now beside me. They step over to the card table and with drink, deck, and hammer in hand, begin to play. A king. One man stands, picks up the card, and nails it to a board covered with dozens of others. They continue. A king. The hammer. Now the bartender's bumped the hanging light and it swings like a pendulum, searing my eyes with each pass as it slices the darkness. Before I regain my senses I'm against the wall and two of the men are pushing at one another. They rant and rave and begin to brawl, thrashing one another against the walls and atop the pool table until behind the bar, with a raging rictus of revenge, the tall man cudgels his quarry with the hammer.

I'll forgive you if the scene doesn't conjure an image of Macbeth, but Punchdrunk's production of Shakespeare is less the form of the play than the primal essence. Gone are the tripping words of the Bard, alas! alack!, but so too the trappings of the theater: the acts, scenes, stage, seats. In place of a linear performance we have parallel staging not of scenes but of various moments from the play. One murder is realized as a saloon fight, another a street brawl. A scene of dialogue becomes a sojourn through a silvery midnight wood or a ballroom dance. Instead of seat and stage, masked audience members are free to wander amongst the performances. The twisting, twirling, and hurling dance of the actors supplant Shakespeare's words.

Stitching these elements together is the ruse that we're not patrons at a theater but guests at the mysterious McKittrick Hotel, whose twisted entry corridors shake up the everyday order and lead you to a smoky lounge of peak 1920s elegance. Sip. Mingle. When your number's up you're masked, hushed, and sent on your way through the McKittrick's five floors. The novelty and detail of the sets catch you first. The detail is exceptional and immersive. A room of headless dolls suspended over a crib. (Whose room could this be?) Another of rolled maps with Creasey's history open on the desk. A nurse's room with a lockbox of keys.

You stumble upon a tailor primping himself in his shop. An angry man walks in and a chase ensues. They grapple and now the tailor's walking up the... shouts in the distance?

You see, while the stagings are parallel they're not discrete. You follow the performers around the hotel, intersecting with other performers followed by other guests. On the one hand this adds the frisson of the live and unpredictable, on the other it results in wandering amongst rooms with little knowledge of their purpose. Pretty and jarring as they are, their significance is often more apparent than actual, contributing less to theater than to tone.

Losing the linear structure also jettisons the structured climaxes of recognition and denouement in the Shakespeare. The result is a scramble whose effect comes not from the controlled ebb and flow of thought in verse but from the visceral. There is, however, an exceptional unity of effect owing foremost to the ferocious aplomb and expressive dexterity of the performers and second to the set design. Much is simple curiosity, but the effect is a disjuncture from the ordinary which in in amplifying, immerses you in the boiling emotions.

As a technique, though, the sensually immersive does not engage the spirit as much as the dramatic perfected by Shakespeare. Absent the traditional form and the words of the Bard, Sleep No More doesn't stand so much on its own as, with different tools, amplify certain dimensions of Shakespeare's masterpiece. As that, it's an engaging thrill.

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