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May 4th, 2011

Sleep No More

Last night, we went to see Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, which is, well, hard to describe.  Interstitial.  Yes, that's fair.  It's  genuinely interstitial, in many ways.  It takes place in a building, not on a stage.  The action (and the actors) wander (or stagger or run or stride) from floor to floor (there were 4) and room to room (there were 90), meeting, engaging in actions that are part of a larger, unknowable whole.  The audience, masked in beaked white plastic masks with huge eye-holes, chooses to follow them or just wanders from room to lovingly-dressed room, peeking in drawers, reading books and private letters, brushing aside wet laundry, dabbling their hands, if they like, in bloody bath water, occasionally happening upon a scene or a snippet of action.  Aesthetic, pop-cultural, and literary references abound--to film noir, to Christie mysteries, to 30's decadence, to Aleister Crowley-like ritual magic and speakeasies and Old Master paintings and Hitchcock.  Oh, and to Shakespeare's Scottish Play.

I do not pretend that I caught half what was going on or what they were trying to do.  We were more wanderers than followers (aren't you surprised), and ended up catching the Macbeths consorting after Duncan's murder twice, for instance, but none of the build-up. We watched (I think) the Witches' original seduction of Macbeth (if that was Banquo in the bell-boy's uniform and not the Hotel Manager), and (possibly) Hecate (or Mrs. Danvers) mixing a potion for a pregnant woman who might have been meant as Lady MacDuff.  Lady Macbeth (I think) danced alone in a ballroom, dragging trees around on wheels among the watchers, and laid her head on my shoulder and breathed in my ear for what felt like 5 minutes and was probably less than 60 seconds.  One of the Witches, a willowy chap in white tie and a little goatee, lip-synced to Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"  Another was an utterly androgynous Asian person in a green satin bias cut gown.  I'm not sure who the third one was--probably the woman in black I had pegged as the third Lady Macbeth, until I found out that there were only two.  Two Macbeths, too.

As you can probably tell, some parts of this worked better for me than others.  I adored the sets.  Every room implied a  (very surreal) short story.  My personal favorites were the state bedroom filled with trunks and oriental rugs and solemn, heavy furniture, and the hotel lobby with the guest book I wrote "Wake Duncan With Thy Knocking" in, because there was a sharpened pencil next to it, and why not? Oh, and the cradle surrounded by dozens of baby sleepers, stuffed with rags like balloons and hung from the ceiling.  And the tailor's shop, with all the sewing machines on the table.  And the boarding-house room with the canopied bed and the wardrobe you had walk through, black dark and hung with silk, to get to the next room.  And both the mazes--the one made of leafless birches, bathed in moonlight and mist, with a stuffed goat in the center, and also the one that was like the ruin of a small and warren-like house, with real rocks to stub your toes on and two mourning statues that might have been, but were not, alive.

I also adored the masks.  Not so much wearing one.  They're plastic, and adjustable, but nothing on earth can make something that basically grinds the nosepieces of your glasses into the corners of your eyes really comfortable to wear for upwards of 2 hours.  But the effect they gave, seeing every action attended by a cloud of ghostly witnesses--of which you yourself were one--was often haunting, especially in the Home Life After Murder and the Macbeth's Disatrous Dinner Party sequences.  And meeting a masked witness while wandering through a corridor or series of rooms that had been empty only a moment ago, was truly spooky.

So those were some of the parts.  Did they add up to a production of Macbeth?  No.  They didn't.  There were clearly a lot of Macbethy ideas brought to bear--about mist, about blood, about decadence and madness and despair and confusion and isolation.  But there was just too much going on to make sense of.  And not a single word.  Not.  One.  Single.  Word.  The scenes were put over through movement, glances, touch, dance, lighting.  I totally got the post-murder scene--where it came from and why they played it the way they did (Macbeth took a bath--a real one, in a real tub, naked, with Lady M. scrubbing his back for all she was worth).  But what was the purpose of the woman in the boarding house, and what was her relationship to the guy who came in through the wardrobe so he could watch her sleep, not to mention the tailor whose till she robbed while he was off buying her flowers?  Was she supposed to add to my knowledge of the state of Scotland under Macbeth?  My understanding of Lady Macbeth's ambitions?  I dunno.  I dunno why almost all the characters were depicted as being stark mad, either, (including the Doctor) or why the entire top floor was kitted out like a mental hospital with rows of bathtubs and a padded cell and an electroconvulsive therapy chair and lots and lots of crucifixes. 

And that's all I got.  Except maybe a few images that will show up in my fiction some day, after I've forgotten where they come from.  And possibly a short story, ditto.  Which isn't a bad result from a night at the theater, is it?  Even if it isn't exactly what I expected to get--maybe especially since that's not what I expected to get.  Don't I keep saying (and writing) that you have to allow a work of Interstitial Art to teach you how to approach it?  Clearly, abandoning artistic expectations is one of those things that's easier said than done.

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