Truly great art makes me want to make art myself. Knowing me for the conceited bastard I am, you’d think the opposite: that I’d be inspired by Dan Brown novels or Oliver Stone movies or Nickelback songs to create my own rebuttals, showing them up. But bad art just depresses me. Good art entertains me. And great art compels me to run and catch up.
I thought I’d have a handle on Sleep No More, the interactive theater installation sponsored by the American Repertory Theatre. The CCE, the premier collegiate-level interactive murder mystery theater troupe, did this sort of thing twice a year. Sure, Punchdrunk Theatre, the British troupe that originated Sleep No More, probably had a higher budget and better actors. And taking Macbeth as inspiration would make things creepy. But I knew what to expect.
I had no idea what to expect.
After idling in a packed bar, Misch and I, along with twenty other audience members, were ushered into a long hallway. We were given white plastic masks, instructed not to talk but to touch anything we liked, and then led up a flight of stairs. What had been an abandoned Brookline high school a moment ago became a decaying hotel, covered with odd photographs, stuffed chairs, marked-up books and other knicknacks. Misch and I poked around the hotel lobby and the adjoining sitting room until a Hitchcock blonde with a pillbox hat hurried through the hall outside. We followed her.
We followed her down two flights of stairs, where she ducked into an office. A dozen audience members crowded along the walls, watching her rifle through a desk for something – a photograph. She stared at it, lost in shock, until a short man with a small mustache, dressed in dinner jacket with suspenders, stalked in. He snatched the photograph from her hands. He glared at her; she smiled at him, pleadingly; no words were exchanged. He seized her in his arms and kissed her. The air filled with feathers.
The two of them separated. I followed the man; Misch followed the woman.
And that’s the real genius behind Sleep No More. Not (just) the atmospheric minutiae with which they strew every room in the “hotel” they’ve created. Not (just) the wordless performances, acrobatic gyrations and haunted looks that recreate the story of MacBeth. Not (just) the nightmarish surreality created by the artful use of light, sound and space. What makes Sleep No More work is that the story changes drastically depending on whom you follow.
And you have to choose, because the characters don’t wait for you. The man I followed most of the night (Malcolm, I believe) took off at a sprint several times, forcing me to hurry in turn. This led to the image of a man in a dinner jacket fleeing down the halls of a hotel, pursued by white-masked figures: a bit of theater which the audience helped in creating. I followed Malcolm as he and the other courtiers carried off the King’s body, where it lay in state. When Malcolm and the others went to drink in a basement speakeasy covered in sawdust I followed them. Therein they played a card game of unclear meaning, which I endeavored to understand until one of them charged me with a hammer. I backed out of the way, but he wasn’t going for me: he was going for the wall behind me, to which he tacked a Nine of Spades.
And this was all before the banquet.
If these proceedings sound like a nightmare, that was the effect intended. Every element – visuals, sounds, staging, timing – contributed to a reality that looked recognizable but jerked to a different rhythm. At times I found myself standing in a crowd, watching one woman try to feed another poison. At time I found myself alone in a room with a woman and an empty crib. Had I been in another room, I might have seen a murder, or a still birth, or a drunken dance. Without a meticulous attention to detail and a genius grasp of the surreal, it wouldn’t have worked. But it worked perfectly.
See it with someone you trust.