‘Sleep’ awakens theatergoers
Theater Review | 4 out of 5 stars
Published: Monday, October 19, 2009
Updated: Monday, October 19, 2009 06:10
Palming the walls for guidance, the audience filters through a narrow, dark hallway lit only by a few strategically placed candles. The hallway leads to an antiquated dressing room; some audience members pause to rifle through the drawers of the fussy bureau, while others round the corner to find themselves before a heavy crimson curtain, reminiscent of those that drape over the stage. A brave hand dares to part the dense folds, revealing a spirited bar where the guests are embraced by an expensively-outfitted hostess, delighted that her guests could attend her soiree. Presently, the baffled members of the audience have stepped onto the stage and into the heart of "Sleep No More," a unique, immersive experience that calls into question the passive nature of traditional dramatic theater.
"Sleep No More" is the North American debut of Punchdrunk, a British theater company determined to not only break the fourth wall, the barrier between actors and their audience, but also shatter it beyond possible repair. The troupe has united with the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) to metamorphose the Old Lincoln School in Brookline into a cavernous stage-meets-haunted-house that conveys a Shakespearian play noir.
Theatergoers are given masks to wear throughout the performance and, in what resembles the final scene in "V for Vendetta" (2005), they traipse through the four floors of the building, encouraged to pioneer their own dramatic adventure. This gives each individual a completely singular experience, whether that involves getting lost in the ornate artistry of the set installations, chasing down one of the ever-wandering actors or heading back to the bar to have a drink and listen to the 1930s-style band.
While the storyline of the show, enacted off and on the stage, is predominantly a nonverbal rendition of Shakespeare's "Macbeth"(1603), its tone and aesthetics flirt shamelessly with the dark glamour of a Hitchcock film. According to the production's Web site, the show is inspired by Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller using the "shadow of suspense" Hitchcock so masterfully conjures in his movies. To that end, characters from Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940) weave in and out of the show's primary plot, and the music from his films disconcertingly blares through overhead speakers, lending a sinister feeling to the prismatic performance.
This melding of Shakespeare and Hitchcock could be confusing if it were not executed so impeccably: In one scene, as Macbeth (Geir Hytten) breaks down in anguish at the appearance of Banquo's (Vinicius Salles) ghost at the banquet table, a screeching strain of Hitchcock's horror soundtrack crescendos, complementing the scene so perfectly that it is a wonder no one has thought of it before.
Although it seems counterintuitive to cut words from a play famed for its language, Punchdrunk preserves the plotline and major themes of "Macbeth" through methods that appeal more to the senses and less to the mind. The stunning and sexually charged dance routines, choreographed by co-director Maxine Doyle, highlight the carnal undertones of the story. Most memorable is the explosively erotic dance between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Sarah Dowling) at the story's commencement. The scene is suggestive of their passion not only for one another, but also for power — a desire that eventually begets their downfall.
The actors also work with the scenery to evoke emotional responses from the audience, a method that is extremely effective due to the elaborateness of the set. While the image of a naked and frantic Lady Macbeth scrubbing vainly at a blood-sodden body is certainly a haunting one, it is ten times more so for the eeriness of a dark, institutionalized room filled with bathtubs — even before she drifts through the doorway, the space is an asylum waiting to be filled. Every other room in the building is likewise perched on the cusp of action, which makes it almost too easy for the actors to manipulate the atmosphere for the purpose of thrilling the audience.
As exhilarating as Punchdrunk's performance may be, there are a few drawbacks to the troupe's unorthodox approach to theater. The lack of actual dialogue places a spectator without prior introduction to "Macbeth" at a great disadvantage. The less adventurous may become frustrated quickly because the nonlinear nature of the play demands an exploratory nature, and those unwilling to actively seek a story may not find one. Still, these are minor snags, and should in no way deter a prospective guest from attending the performance.
In press notes, Punchdrunk promises "a unique theatrical experience where the line between performer and spectator is extraordinarily blurred." The troupe inarguably stays true to their word, and the result is an extraordinary experience for those who are willing to embrace Punchdrunk's nonconformist modus operandi.
"Sleep No More" runs from October 8, 2009 to January 3, 2010, at the Old Lincoln School on Boylston Street. Tickets range from $25 to $39 (group rates are available) and can be purchased online at www.americanrepertorytheater.org, by phone at 617-547-8300 or in person at the A.R.T box office.