It wasn’t my plan to get thrown up against a wall by Macduff on a Monday night. Only hours earlier, I’d found myself innocuously waiting in a long line, on an otherwise deserted Chelsea corner, in a crowd wearing a sheen of sweat under cocktail dresses and collared shirts.
“I can’t believe they’re making us wait,” a man in very short shorts in front of me said. It was seven-twenty outside the McKittrick Hotel, a hundred-plus-room Chelsea warehouse currently playing host to one of New York’s most immersive theater experiences, but no one had seen any of the gore, sex, or fun our tickets promised. “I hate lines,” a girl in a halter top moaned to her friend.
“What’s the name of this?” a woman passing by asked me.
“Sleep No More,” I said.
“That’s the name of the club?”
We were waiting, in fact, to see a free-form staging of Macbeth, in which the audience wanders through a maze of lush rooms decorated like Hitchcock’s version of a boutique hotel, including a gruesome taxidermist shop and a candy store. I’d heard that actors climbed up walls, had orgies, and went ballroom dancing, but I’d decided to ignore the freakish distractions in hopes of sifting out something less fleeting from the thousands of documents, photos, and files that decorate the convoluted set. If my wallet was going to be nearly a hundred dollars lighter by the end of the night, I wanted to leave with more than just the experience of a naked, wordless rendition of “Out damn spot!” I wanted to walk away with some small, new understanding of Shakespeare.
When I was finally admitted to the dark interior of the building, I was handed a ticket in the form of a playing card: a joker. I fumbled down a pitch-black hallway and emerged into something reminiscent of a speakeasy. Champagne flutes shimmered in the glow of low red light (and were passed off to hands wielding credit cards for the ten-dollar-plus drinks) and very attractive hosts danced between tables.
“Do we have any queens here tonight?” one such host called, herding groups of people into the show based on their cards.
“Yeah we do!” another man said, greeted by squeals. Anxious, and unwilling to find out what my joker card meant, I snuck into the group. We were loaded into an elevator and instructed to put on ghoulish white masks. Someone pointed out an obvious speed bump to donning our atmospheric accessories, remarking, “This is really awkward with my glasses.” On our way up, the elevator operator leaned towards me and whispered, “I think you’ll have good luck tonight.”
My first stop was a witches’ lair on the fourth floor, strewn with hair, leaves, and crumpled papers scrawled with spells. I found my first hint of Shakespeare: a cut-up copy of Twelfth Night, with a greasy ponytail sewn inside. Some sonnet fragments had been tacked to the walls, too, but the bass shaking the room made it difficult to focus on them. In a chamber outfitted as a detective agency I found a page of a psychiatric evaluation: “Subject’s fears and phobias: her boyfriend.” I was about to leave when a man in a bow tie went at the typewriter like he’d just taken an Adderall (perhaps the real secret behind the show’s title). He opened a tiny box that held a dead bird tied together at its feet with a piece of paper that read “Blood will have blood.” If only I’d known these would be the only words of Shakespeare I’d see all night.
In fact, the only plot I’d find over the several floors was the one created by the audience members, who frantically ran after whichever character looked coolest. A woman in a sparkly dress with bloody lips temporarily attracted attention, but then it shifted to a mohawk-sporting acrobat in a tux, a bald woman in a cocktail dress, another shadowy figure.
In a doctor’s office, I found a nurse in the midst of a demonstration, unlocking a box with a knife inside and intricately carving into a book. On closer inspection, the book turned out to be a volume of Shakespeare’s. The only thing that she had created from it? A pretty picture.
I wandered into a gazebo in a graveyard where Lady Macbeth was drawing a crowd to her bathtub. I’d heard that the letters scattered around her feet would be a treat to read, but by the time I got to them, they were soaked with water and fake blood. I found the sharpest reference to the Bard in “The Shakespeare Threading Kit” at an infirmary: here were the playwright’s seams, undone.
Still, there was a moment of thrill when, at the end of the show, after Macbeth had been dealt with, Macduff locked eyes with me. He grabbed my arm, then my waist. He led me up the winding maze of stairs to the bar. He pushed me against a wall. He took off my mask and stared into my eyes. Then, just when I thought he might kiss me or bite me, or both, he was gone.
I was left alone at the Mandalay Bar, where a cabaret singer had begun to croon from the stage. Here, unlike in the theater itself, there was dialogue: Who had seen what? Did someone else see something stranger, more unique?
“My friend got locked in a room with some guy who started touching her on …”
“They should buy this shit up when they’re done and turn it into a club.”
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” a girl said sagely to her friend. Nearby, another member of the audience gushed, “I saw so much more than the last two times.”
It was the end of the evening, and I had learned little about Macbeth’s scenes, either from the décor or from the macabre, silent exchanges with actors. In fact, there really were no “scenes” at all in Sleep No More, at least as Shakespeare understood the term. There was only a “scene,” as jazz slang reclaimed the word, after the fabled McKittrick Hotel shuttered.