an unusual theatrical experience from Punch Drunk Theatre

By Yingyue Huang

The audience is in the masks!
I had an unusual experience. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a strange take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, messed with my mind and my sense of who I am. Yes, it was that good and bad. Before entering the theater, a waitress -- dolled up in 1930’s film noir style – opened up a door and led us down some stairs into a dark room. It didn’t feel like a pleasant way to begin an evening of theater. There were electric candles in every corner, the only and insufficient light available. We were stumbling around in the darkness, trying to catch up to our waitress, or was she our leader?

Suddenly, she stopped in front of another door, and there was another beautiful lady holding a stack of white Venetian masks. She was smiling, and as she handed the masks to us, she explained the rules: “No talking. And when you see something interesting, follow it.” She told us to trust our instincts and make sure we put on the masks. In the end, the lady paused and added: “Remember, fortune favors the bold.” What was that supposed to mean? It’s like a message you would receive from a mysterious gypsy. We walked through the door one by one and as we did, the lady would tap our shoulders and whisper to go “up” or “down."

Things can get freaky at Sleep No More.

I first heard about Sleep No More from my friends. They were talking about it, but what they said didn’t make sense to me. The only thing I knew was that the show was an adaption of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Out of curiosity, I finally purchased a ticket. I asked a friend to give me tips on what would be happening. She just said, “Hold eye contact.” I said, “What?” And she repeated herself, “Hold eye contact.”

As I entered the room, I immediately tried to orient myself. It was an interesting and new experience to see the set as everything around you. As I got my bearings, some people wearing white masks entered, lost like me. They took a peak around the room and walked away. Suddenly I heard someone. A woman in a green velvet dress, carrying a suitcase was passing by. She was not wearing a mask, which is how I knew that she was a performer. I followed her and watched her do her own thing. At one point, she raised her head and looked at me and I looked her in the eyes like I was supposed to do. She smiled, and stared at me as if she were trying to snatch my soul. She walked towards me and grabbed my hand. I stiffened, but let myself be led.

I still remember the warmth of her palm and the way she squeezed my icy fingertips. It was a little too intense for my reserved tastes and sense of decorum. She ushered me into a different room, locked the door, and took off my mask. That was the beginning of a very strange three-hour experience. Lots of stuff happened, but it all felt like a dream, fragmented and distracting. It was dark most of the time: the performers didn’t speak but kind of danced. The background music in each floor and room was different -- the soundtrack sounded like one of Bernard Hermann’s Jazzy Hitchcock scores. It blended into the performance, even though sometimes the music seemed irrelevant to the choreography. Nonetheless, the score was compelling and opened up my imagination to what was going on around me, which I was very confused about.

I was amazed by the details of the set and the amount of props in the show. Every drawer could be opened and explored. And that’s exactly what I did. It made me feel like a creepy little voyeur. All the documents and files can be read and I did that, too. I spent a lot of money to act like a thief. Every floor and every room has a different scent. And I smelled them all. Taxidermies were all around. This is a show that forces you to use all your senses, even if you don’t want to.

The Office of Bad Dreams
After watching a ballroom dance, I followed a clumsy man—although I don’t know why I would follow a clumsy man. He was grabbing his chest, choking, as he made his way to the stairs. He was in pain and sick. His face was so pale it seemed he would faint; yet he ran so fast, like a shooting bullet. I could barely catch him, my breath was getting belabored, and my heart was beating fast. I thought, “I’m running around a lot for this show.” The man slammed several doors that got in his way, as I ran behind him for reasons I could barely comprehend. I almost fell because it was so dark. Chasing him was like trying to catch a moth in a dream. Finally, he stopped and flopped down on the floor, as if he were sinking into the brick wall. I slowed down, took a deep breath, and really looked at him. Immediately, I felt attacked by the environment. All the red lights from the ceiling popped in my eyes; haunted, black and white pictures were hanging on the cotton strings with wooden clips. Papers with text were all over the wall. Old film cameras that might be broken were stacked on the shelf at a sloping angle. The character passed me like I didn’t exist, and when I looked up somehow I was now in an office.

The purpose of the masks is not only to let the audience hide, or conceal their identities, but also to create a huge cast of ghosts. They’re literally everywhere and like ghosts they’re always popping up and disappearing. What’s interesting is that the masks are a variant of the masks doctors used in the plague during the middle ages so that the whole scene feels like a death trap. Most of the time, the characters don’t pay attention to the audience. But when do, it usually means that they’re dying or having a nervous breakdown. In my opinion, this is a remarkable bit of conceptual design.

After I came out of the show, it felt like I had had a psychotic break down and I don’t remember the rest of the performance. No, not really, well, almost, kind of, I’m not saying.I was confused. There were so many storylines tangled together. I tried to recall details, but I failed. I just could not put it all together, which I guess is the point. It was all a blur of gothic excess and beauty. And yet, even though I can’t quite put the show together, I can say one thing and one thing only about this experience: the acting is strange and shocking.

It’s fascinating to see different performers play the same role and how each of them approaches the character in different ways. I was amazed at how radically different they were from each other. Every time it happened, it felt like being reacquainted with the character all over again.

Sometimes I don't want to get to know you.

An interview from The Wall Street Journal explains how the producers went about casting the show: “We cast personalities, not characters. They’re very exposed. They’re not distant on the stage” Usually in a traditional play the actors are cast in one role, and maybe have an understudy. But it is rare to see them play other roles, especially major roles, in the same production and in the same run. What makes SNM so powerful is the way in which character becomes a fluid concept--Macbeth could be anyone, even us. And it is part of the overall effect of the play that not only are the actors switching around from performance to performance, but it also feels as if you are part of it too, which you are. Thus, I felt a little psychotic in the end.

©Yingyue Huang and the CCA Arts Review

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