NEW YORK — Geez, I would hate to go through this alone,” said my friend John as we made our way in the dark down a winding corridor. So would I, I thought, glad we were trailing about a dozen others, all of us a bit disoriented in our masquerade masks with protruding beaks. White and hollow-eyed, they made us look like ghost birds.
Ghosts, darkness, shades of anxiety — welcome to the immersive experience of Punchdrunk Theatre. The London-based company has taken over three adjacent warehouses in Chelsea and decorated more than 100 antique-cluttered, dimly lit rooms inside for its production called “Sleep No More,” an Alfred Hitchcock-inspired adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The idea is, the audience wanders at will through the rooms and corridors, piecing together a narrative from the scattered personal effects and hints of lives lived there. Occasionally performers will burst into a room to enact a scene; you can follow them or poke about in the vast labyrinth at your own pace. It’s a fully functional feedback loop, customized by you, perfect for Twitter-age attention spans. But this isn’t faddish hipster ephemera. Far from it. Chances are, you’ll walk away from “Sleep No More” obsessing over its myriad details, chewing over your peculiarly intoxicating trip in a way no traditional theatergoing can match.
A hit in London, “Sleep No More” enjoyed a sold-out run in an old Boston school in 2009. With this production, slated through June 25, Punchdrunk is making its long-awaited New York debut.
As we filed through the passageways, we were told to keep our masks on at all times to intensify the event. With the crowd an anonymous, expressionless blur, you focus more on the performers and on your experience.
At the moment, mine was one of guarded anticipation. This place promised to be like an enormous, haunted Dunsinane — a stylized, Britishy “Macbeth” theme park. Cool, right? As long as I didn’t get lost. An oily-voiced man in a tux appeared and led our group into an elevator, where he admonished us not to speak to one another throughout our stay.
“And remember,” he murmured as the doors closed. “Things are not always as they seem.”
I shared an excited stare with John. It was the most I could muster with the mask.
It was also the last I’d see of him for hours.
We rose a few flights, and the elevator shuddered to a stop. “Everybody out,” called tux guy. I was the first to step into the pitch-black hallway.
I heard the doors bang shut behind me. Was that me who gasped? No one else had gotten off. What I’d most feared had happened: I was lost. Alone. And more than a little bit scared.
As a drama student, Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett had decided conventional theater was a bore.
“I was tired of going to things and saying, ‘Oh, that was all right,’ and then moving on to something else,” Barrett said by phone from London last week. Chipper and upbeat, he speaks at a manic clip; it’s easy to imagine him being restless in a theater seat. “What I wanted to know was, how do you change the act of going to the theater into something that empowers the audience? How can I make work with the force to engage?”
He founded Punchdrunk in 2000 to goose the whole notion of theater. No seats, no polite applause. All rules are broken. People move through the set just as the actors do, spurred on by the thrill of discovery. If you’re bored with a scene, leave and find another. He launched site-specific performances of such works as Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; one production wormed through abandoned tunnels under London’s Waterloo train station.
But as the projects grew larger — inhabiting warehouses and old distilleries — Barrett realized something surprising: Language was getting in the way. With all the dreamlike fantasy and mystery he so loved creating — especially through sound, his conceptual starting point — he found that hearing actors speak was “a letdown.” It broke the spell.
The solution landed in a production of “The Tempest”; Barrett had hired a dancer to portray the spirits. “Her physicality in the space was just so beautiful. We said, ‘This is it.’ ”
Henceforth, movement, rather than words, became “the core ethos” of Punchdrunk. Its plays would be largely nonverbal. Intense physical duets would replace language. All Barrett needed was a choreographer.
Barrett entered his idea of mixing theater and dance into a contest to fund a new dance production and won. As his prize, the organizers paired him with Maxine Doyle, who had run her own dance company and is now a regular Punchdrunk collaborator. In addition to choreographing “Sleep No More,” she directed it with Barrett.
The irony of watching dance succeed in a theatrical environment, while it struggles so often on its own, is not lost on Doyle. “What is very, very interesting is how the theater world feels like it opens up the possibilities with dance and how contemporary dance can shoot itself in the foot and can marginalize people,” said Doyle, speaking by phone from London, where she and Barrett returned after rehearsing “Sleep No More.” “I think dancing can tell stories beautifully. It has a different kind of specificity than words.”
Key to the power of dance in Punchdrunk works is intimacy, Doyle added. “The intimacy of the space between the performers and the audience. I have so many memories of going to dance performances and being so dislocated, not being able to feel it. In Punchdrunk, that proximity of the body is so available to you. You can literally feel it.”
Yes, but take it from me: You’re feeling more than that. “It’s all about adrenaline,” Barrett said. “The power it has over the body. When the adrenaline is pumping, you’re ready to receive whatever moment you come across. That’s the reason the lighting is so dark. The first night, it was too bright, and the audience walked around too fast, like it was a museum. It was not as dynamic, there was no sense of tension.
“The audience needs to be slowed down by that mild fear,” he said, “to tune into the atmosphere of the show.”
Mild fear — check. Adrenaline — plenty of that, too. Especially as I navigated the gloomy hallway and rounded a corner, where I encountered a woman in an old-fashioned nurse’s uniform. She was standing behind an antique wicker wheelchair, beckoning to me.
Very psychodrama, very “Snake Pit.” I sat on the chair’s blood-stained cushion and was wheeled into a dark room. The chair reclined, and I was flat on my back, helpless as a bug. Every crime-show denouement in an abandoned building zipped through my mind. But here was a good nurse: She placed her hands on my arm with a gentle, reassuring pressure. A good thing, because there was nothing but disconcerting black silence until a crackly soundtrack started up, and a woman’s voice recited the opening lines of Hitchcock’s thriller “Rebecca”: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. . .”
Overhead, a landscape of parched earth and bare trees was illuminated, as if it were planted on the ceiling. An upside-down mansion rolled past. A dreamscape slipped that hinted at what I might find as the night went on.
I was wheeled down a corridor to a stairwell. As I got up, the nurse looked at me earnestly and whispered the words I’d heard in that room: “You can never return to Manderley again, but sometimes, in my dreams, I return to those strange days.”
And then she kissed me.
I’d spent less than half an hour in the world of “Sleep No More” and had whiplashed from excitement to confusion, from fear to apprehension to . . . the sweetness of a kiss.
Suddenly, it didn’t feel quite so scary.
(Still, I vowed I wouldn’t be caught alone again.)
At the top of the stairs was a sign for the King James Infirmary Psychiatric Ward — in a long room lit only by bedside lamps were rows of iron beds. There was a low droning sound as I wandered through ... cases of specimen bottles . . . a bathroom full of claw-foot tubs, one filled with bloody water. Now the Ink Spots were crooning “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” and, past a velvet curtain, I entered a vast forest of barren trees, bathed in an eerie blue light. Around a bend was a stuffed white mountain goat, staring, waiting. I passed a padlocked wrought-iron gate (straight out of “Rebecca”). Other sights: a laundry room with stiffened clothes stretched into human form. A nightgown and a pair of pajamas were frozen in a waltz.
Everywhere: crucifixes, religious statuary, candles and clocks. Spiritual talismans and markers of time.
Another floor is laid out like a bygone streetscape, with rows of storefronts outfitted in wonderfully decrepit detail. There’s a candy shop (intrepid audience members are reaching into jars and eating the sweets) and a display of sewing notions, thimbles arranged on the walls as if in some kind of binary code. You wind through an alleyway piled with crates and discover a life-size Madonna, blue eyes cracked and weathered. Another cramped shop holds every kind of taxidermy imaginable, rats and rattlers posed in violent dioramas of the hunted and the hungry.
And what of “Macbeth”? Shakespeare’s bloody chronicle of regicide is loosely fragmented here. I spot a crowd and slip through it to see a bald man, naked and bloody, taking a shower while a metronome ticks loudly. Dripping, agitated and gasping, he pulls on his socks, trousers, shirt — and abruptly thrusts his vest at me. I toss it back. He dashes from the room.
I figure this is one of Shakespeare’s witches, who in the Punchdrunk interpretation has just taken part in a satanic blood ritual. But as there is no backstage in this concept — nothing is hidden from the audience — he has to cleanse himself before his next scene. And, as we’re quickly learning, intimacy and voyeurism come with the price of admission.
One floor is arranged like an Art Deco-era home. I wander past framed portraits, into a bedroom strewn with period gowns and silver-handled brushes. A child’s nursery looks charming enough, with its yellowing books and rag dolls — until you realize the floor is stained in blood.
It’s a bad night in the acduff household. In Shakespeare, Macbeth slaughters the wife and children of his chief rival. In “Sleep No More,” we see the gory aftermath — in one room, an empty crib is surrounded by headless baby dolls, suspended in space like ghastly cherubs as the Ink Spots sing of swallows; but there’s no returning here. A corridor leads to a moonlit cemetery.
Back in the house, we also see the fearful before. A hugely pregnant woman, Lady Macduff, is waltzing with her husband; she’s anxious and distracted and finally breaks away, running right through a gathering of onlookers toward some bookcases. I see the wildness in her eyes, feel her brush against me — we are sucked into her wake. She leaps onto the high shelves like a cat and scrambles to the top, where there’s a little altar of photos and candles. Macduff climbs after her, and the two tumble around on that narrow platform, 12 feet or so above us, as if they were wrestling in bed.
It’s a marvelous piece of choreography and swift, agile execution made all the more buoyant with Lady Macduff’s large belly. Might they fall or crash on top of us? Strip off their clothes for makeup sex? Dozens of masked voyeurs are glued in place by their fitful, unbound dancing.
“We made the piece about limitation,” Doyle explained later. “With this place she would escape to, this foreboding fear something would happen to her unborn child, and Macduff trying to console her and soften her. It was all about combining that fear and restriction with freedom.”
We follow the couple into what looks like the lobby of an old hotel. (Punchdrunk calls it the McKittrick, in another Hitchcock nod: That was “Psycho’s” inn.) There’s ominous music, and a man in a tux and woman in a velvet gown begin a boisterous dance. She cartwheels over and over; he tosses her from chair to chair and lifts her onto a high shelf. They fall onto a couch; she produces a handful of dirt, smears it on him — I’m standing so close I can almost taste it — and strides away. There’s a violent struggle between the bald male witch and a bellman in the phone booths at the far end.
Church bells toll, and there’s moaning. I follow a tall woman — another witch, I gather, as I’d seen her pouring poison down Lady Macduff’s gullet — down stairs and into a high-ceilinged ballroom. Bing Crosby is warbling “Moonlight Becomes You.” At one end is a banquet table, where most of the performers I’d seen throughout the night are seated, alongside Macbeth, his face smeared in blood. They gesture in slow motion; lusty kisses lead to a slugfest and a final brutal act.
We’re ushered out and make our way to the bright, bustling Manderley Lounge, where we’d started, where the bar is in full swing and a band is playing — and John is waiting with my drink ticket.
Here was a true catharsis. There were many relieved reunions and excited chatter about who had seen what.
“There was so much nakedness!”
“I didn’t have any naked!”
“That bald woman, she was everywhere in mine.”
“Did you see the triple-jointed dance on the pool table with the strobe lights?”
“I had alone time with the bald guy. . . . He crushed an eggshell in my face and pulled my mask off. . . . I was terrified!”
As I found out later from Barrett, I was the nurse’s only visitor that night; I had stumbled into one of 16 different moments when an audience member can be snatched away for an up-close scare.
But if I had lucked into a rare experience, I discovered I’d also missed an entire floor. So had John, who hadn’t gotten to the ballroom. Clearly, the strength of Punchdrunk’s convention is also its weakness: If you’re free to roam and scenes are happening simultaneously, you’re not going to see everything. Everyone takes in a different story.
Demand for Punchdrunk is high — this run is mostly sold out — and the troupe is in a constant search for real estate; the dearth of vacant buildings seems to be its only constraint. Up next is — believe it or not — a children’s show in Manchester, England. No adults allowed. “It’s all about empowerment,” said Barrett.
His new venture, now in a pilot phase, is Punchdrunk Travel. You show up at the airport with no clue where you’re headed. You get your tickets from a locker, leave your cellphone behind, fly to your destination — and from that point on, “you’re inside the show,” Barrett said. “Anyone you meet can be a performer. . . . We want to find out what happens if you take our principles into the real world.”
And what are those principles? The power of sensory perception. The emotional stimulation of sound, lighting, decor and dance. The tremendous and terrifying force of nonverbal communication.
And also, its comfort. A touch on the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek. For all its postmodern defiance of theater norms, its chopped-up narratives and do-it-yourself plotting, Punchdrunk stakes its art on an ancient, even primitive premise: There is no source of storytelling as powerful as the human body.
Directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle. Designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns. Choreography by Maxine Doyle. Sound design, Stephen Dobbie; lighting design, Felix Barrett, Euan Maybank and Austin R. Smith; costumes, David Israel Reynoso. With Phil Atkins, Kelly Bartnik, Sophie Bortolussi, Eric Jackson Bradley, Nicholas Bruder, Ching-I Chang, Hope T. Davis, Stephanie Eaton and others. About 21 / 2 hours. No one younger than 16 permitted. Through June 25 at 530 W. 27th St., New York. Tickets $75-$95. Call 866-811-4111 or visit sleepnomorenyc.com.