Monday, December 14, 2009

Sleep No More

Alfred Hitchcock famously explained the difference between surprise and suspense by describing a scene in which two men are seated at a table, talking about sports. If a bomb hidden under the table suddenly explodes during their conversation, that’s a surprise: a few shocking seconds and it’s over. If the audience is shown the device at the beginning of the scene and then watches the discussion intercut with shots of the ticking timer, that’s suspense; it makes a relatively benign episode feel richer and more complex as every moment becomes more highly charged.

That was very much the sensation I felt standing in an enormous, regally-appointed bedroom watching the Scottish king, Duncan, prepare himself for bed in Punchdrunk Theatre’s Sleep No More: I couldn’t see the ticking bomb but I knew there was an explosion coming. Suddenly, a man sitting down in a chair to take off his shoes and socks, pulling back the bed covers and climbing between the sheets was riveting. Knowing what was coming next didn’t change the sense of anticipation I felt in the long moments after he had settled himself in and drifted off to sleep… until finally a door opened and someone entered from the hallway. Duncan’s host, Macbeth, made his way stealthily through the two dozen or so audience members, crawled slowly up onto the bed, raised himself up over the sleeping king, picked up one of the nearby pillows and… realized his vaulting ambition.

About an hour later, in another room on the opposite end of the Old Lincoln School’s second floor, I felt the tension again. Following an intensely passionate and physically violent dance duet, Macbeth had left his wife alone in their bedroom. For several long minutes, the room was filled with nervous energy as Lady Macbeth moved anxiously among the crowd like a caged animal, starting at every sound from the hallway. It was only after her husband returned, his hands and clothes bloodied, and she had stripped him down, bathed him in the claw-footed tub in the middle of the room and settled him into their bed with her that the tension began to dissipate somewhat… until we heard the cry of alarum down the hall that King Duncan had just been murdered in his bed.

This is one of the many joys of Sleep No More: if you’re a lucky audience member, you get to be in two places at the same time, metaphorically speaking. And if you miss an event, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get another opportunity to see it later.

I think the production is best described as a performed installation: you’re allowed to wander wherever you wish through the dozens of rooms on four floors of the school building that have been meticulously designed and decorated. Some have been converted into libraries, bedrooms, dining rooms and studies like you might find in an English manor house; some seem to be more institutional, like the large room turned into a hospital ward or the one next to it with rows of bathtubs along the walls; still others are more abstract or idiosyncratic creations, like the one with the maze of sheets that leads to a statue of a howling dog or the one filled floor-to-ceiling shelves of taxidermied animals. Along the way, you encounter a variety of characters that you may follow, if you like; stay with any one long enough and you’ll eventually encounter more characters and, ultimately, wind up in the great auditorium that serves as banquet hall and Birnam Wood (complete with mobile trees). Most of the performances involve only one or two characters and since many of them occur simultaneously in different rooms, you’re not going to see everything and it’s okay: you’re not supposed to.

What Sleep No More is not is a production of Macbeth, so if you go expecting that, you may be disappointed. Yes, many of the plot points and characters are here but not a word of dialogue, Shakespearean or otherwise: it’s as much a dance piece as theater. It’s also been mashed-up with elements from the classic Hitchcock film, Rebecca: Mrs. Danvers and the Second Mrs. DeWinter are featured prominently in a few instances (sadly, Catherine and I caught only a couple of them). The two sources actually provide a nice counterpoint to one another—two stories that display the opposite extremes of ambition presented in a single, gloomy (and more than a little surreal) environment. I don’t think you have to know Macbeth well to be able to enjoy the piece but reading a summary of the plot in advance is a good idea: it'll make it a lot more fun and much easier to recognize the bombs.

The performances are all uniformly strong. Eric Jackson-Bradley and Tori Sparks’s frenetic and sadistic duet as the Macbeths was amazing, if somewhat frightening: they darted among the audience, tossed one another around, slammed into walls and leapt onto furniture with an abandon that would have been discomfiting even in if they hadn’t been inches away from us. The soundscape, designed by Stephen Dobbie, plays like a soundtrack throughout the event (and, in fact, incorporates several musical motifs and excerpts from Rebecca and Psycho); it’s also how the actors receive their cues for all of their individual and group scenes (as far as I could tell, there is never a moment when anyone is “off stage”).

Catherine and I had been wanting to see a Punchdrunk performance for many years now; I’m happy to say that Sleep No More lived up to and even surpassed many of our expectations. The production more than compensated for the lousy trip we had getting to Boston (the almost two hour delay caused by a defective locomotive on our train sorely tested my love of rail travel). I have to applaud Diane Paulus for bringing their work to the U.S.; it’s an auspicious beginning to her tenure at A.R.T.

Photos by Stephen Dobbie and Lindsay Nolin.


soungalo said...

great post! great review.

quick note - robert najarian is actually malcolm and eric jackson-bradley is macbeth.

Barry said...

Thanks for the correction: I have amended the post. Robert Najarian did a great job, too, though. This is what happens when I finish up the article at 1 am after a whirlwind trip to Boston!

Unknown said...

This is a great description without being too spoiler-y. I've sent this link to a couple of people as part of an attempt to convince them to see SNM. (I've been 4 times, going 5 more! I may be addicted.)