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Fit your story with others'

It's not a play, exactly. It's based on Macbeth, and presupposes that the audience has a passing familiarity with its source material (though those who had never somehow encountered the play could still enjoy themselves). But the tale of treachery and blood has been updated to a sort of 1940s noir.

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Topics: Arts
Fit your story with others' June 20, 2011  |  By Alissa Wilkinson
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Last Wednesday night, along with my husband and two friends, I went to Sleep No More, a production that's hard to describe.

It's not a play, exactly. It's based on Macbeth, and presupposes that the audience has a passing familiarity with its source material (though those who had never somehow encountered the play could still enjoy themselves). But the tale of treachery and blood has been updated to a sort of 1940s noir. The theatre company took over and dressed the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, which is the setting for what can only be described—as one of my friends said—as simultaneously inhabiting The Shining and a David Lynch movie.

We, the audience, enter and are asked to put on white masks and remain silent for the duration of the performance—which lasts about three hours. Beyond that, there are no rules. Audience members roam the six-story set (which includes a graveyard, a banquet hall, Duncan's quarters, the Macbeths' bedchamber, a maze-like forest, a sanatorium, and a lot more) and can poke around in drawers, go through any door they can open, walk around and watch the action, which takes place as actors (largely wordlessly) unfold the story throughout the space. It's like being a ghost.

The space is meticulously dressed—even my husband, who has spent many years working on high-production movie sets, thought so. And you don't know what you'll find. Rooting through a drawer in what appeared to be a psychiatrist's office, he found Lady MacBeth's psychiatric files. (She's still seeing hallucinations.)

The story, as near as we could tell, spans from the period when Duncan is killed to the infamous banquet scene, but there are other characters and story lines. The best thing to do, you quickly realize, is just pick a character and follow them through their story. The stories loop three times before the big finale, so there's opportunity to complete stories. And because everyone is masked, and because you sometimes have to run to keep up with characters fleeing, say, the scene of a murder, you quickly lose anyone you came with.

That's the genius of the production; it allows every audience member to have a unique experience. One could spend the entire three hours following characters, or exploring a single set piece. That means the time after the production is spent comparing notes with your friends, trying to decide who and what was going on in different rooms, discovering what different people saw. One of my friends spent the first half looking for (and finding) trap doors; another got pulled into a room by an actor. I saw the latter half of a scene that we later connected with the earlier half—which changed my interpretation of the story.

It was certainly an unparalleled experience, and we're already toying with going back to try and piece together more of the stories—it gets inside your head and makes you wonder what's going on.

But as I ran down staircases and through hallways chasing Macbeth or a strange lady with an unexplained suitcase, I realized what a sort of postmodern experience this really was, in the best sort of way: fragmented and individualistic, but in a way that screams for you to try to fit your part of the story together with others' stories. As is my wont, I found myself philosophizing in between scenes about how apt a metaphor this was for how we live. It's only through comparing notes with others about their lives that I start to understand the narrative of my own—and the greater narrative.

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