In the first act of Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis utters the impassioned couplet, “Stars, hide your fires!/Let not light see my black and deep desires.” In Sleep No More, an adaptation of Macbeth by the British company Punchdrunk, produced by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, Macbeth’s black and deep desires are highly visible—as are his bedroom, his parlor, the contents of his desk drawers, and, in a naked bathtub pas de deux, Mr. M and all his bits.
Sleep No More marks the stateside debut of Punchdrunk, one of the United Kingdom’s most exhilarating companies. Here, as in any Punchdrunk show, the performance begins with audiences handed creepy masks. Then stagehands separate spectators from one another and loose them into a building—in this case, an abandoned school in Brookline, Massachusetts. Each participant must construct a narrative from an exploration of the environment and whatever snippets of scenes he or she might chance to encounter. One person might follow a specific character’s journey; another might make a meticulous catalogue of each room’s décor
Punchdrunk—run by artistic director Felix Barrett, choreographer Maxine Doyle, and executive producer Colin Marsh—enacts a type of theater that the British refer to as “promenade plays,” intensely site-specific works in which audiences wander from one location to another. Punchdrunk always presents a jaw-dropping level of detail—paw through a dressing table and discover period-appropriate maquillage, look inside a sack and find a hoard of chicken feet. The company also furnishes live performers, though the acting often seems, as in Sleep No More, something of an afterthought.
Only after I had left the show did I learn that Punchdrunk had combined the Scottish play with Hitchcock’s film Rebecca. News to me, though it did help to explain the 1930s settings and the naming of the theater’s in-house bar “The Manderlay.” Despite my best intentions, I managed to miss much of Macbeth, too. I caught the first encounter with the witches, Duncan’s murder, and a couple of sex scenes that owed little to Shakespeare. The actors keep silent throughout and eventually the choreography—all middling erotic, all most intense—began to pall.
At one point, I skipped out on some mimed coition in the hopes of witnessing Macduff’s slaughter, but I apparently missed that as well. Therein lies the promise and danger of a Punchdrunk show—you make your own experience, though it is not always the one you would wish. Nevertheless, I joyed in the things I did discover: a taxidermied fox in the middle of a curtained maze; a recipe for stanching blood; a box filled with salt; a room thronged with fir trees, fairy lights, and swirling dancers.
Despite Punchdrunk’s claims, their plays are not fully participatory. They carefully manage audience experience. Black-masked assistants ensure that one doesn’t stray into forbidden areas or damage the installations; the cast gracefully avoids any distraction or obstacle. Yet I welcome the opportunity to take things in my own time, staying as long in a room as I liked, leaving a scene when it wearied me, stopping into the bar when I felt like a drink. (Many of Sleep No More’s spectators seemed less pleased. They refused to wear their masks and talked throughout. Several left early.)
Indeed, I felt disappointed when, at 10 p.m., assistants hustled me into the Manderlay, marking the show’s abrupt ending. (Had I missed Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane? Had I missed the beheading? Damn!) As I had not yet supped full of horrors, I was unready to sup full of cocktails. Nevertheless, when I found myself back on the Brookline street (again abruptly, someone had tripped the fire alarm), I had the post-show feeling I so often long for and so rarely experience. As I stood shivering, the evening’s entertainment seemed to extend beyond the school’s doors, following me out into the night. Somehow even sleepy Brookline appeared altered: darker, stranger, new.
The Manderlay bar offered various sophisticated nibbles: boar sausage, fish pâté, assorted cheeses. This compares unfavorably to the lavish spread—Jello-molds, profiteroles, cream buns, layer cakes, lollipops—served up in Hansel and Gretel, another promenade play, by the Scottish company Catherine Wheels. In this piece, recommended for children eight and up, Catherine Wheels utilize the whole of the New Victory’s theater space—lobby, basement, balcony, orchestra—to offer a version of the fairy tale rather more cheeky than Grimm.
Like Punchdrunk, Catherine Wheels does not concern itself much with narrative coherence. The performance begins in medias res, as Hansel and Gretel’s wicked stepmother decides to abandon the tots in the forest—again. One can hardly blame her. Tommy Joe Mullins and Ashley Smith play the kiddies not as tender innocents but as spoiled brats. They slam doors, disarray the furniture, and loudly demand dinner. Of course, the stepmother (Cath Whitefield, who doubles as the witch) doesn’t garner much sympathy either. She hides goodies in her purse and prances around to Bay City Rollers tunes—enough to prejudice even the most generous audience.
These first scenes seem somewhat forced, but once the journey into the forest begins, the show relaxes and improves. Unlike Punchdrunk, Catherine Wheels limits the crowd to a single, orderly trek, with stagehands to reprimand you should you stray off path or sit in the wrong spot. (Considering that tweens make up a significant portion of the audience, the producers may have had no other choice.) After a mildly spooky journey up and down stairs and in and out of branches and spiderwebs, the audience arrives at the gingerbread house. Here they don party hats, listen to a live band, and celebrate H and G’s epic pigout. In a nice participatory gesture, the kids share with the crowd, tossing out handfuls of uniquely disgusting yet addictive marshmallows.
Despite its emphasis on multiple environments and long marches, the company seems to only really settle into the action once they’ve seated the audience in chairs—creating a more conventional theater space and substituting gross-out gags for genuine frights. Still, the youthful crowd adored the show, with the exception of one skittish blond girl who had to be escorted out. The others laughed at the silly jokes and cheered the children’s rescue. (I must confess that my grown-up self wouldn’t have minded seeing the little monsters eaten.) Like Sleep No More, Hansel and Gretel does not feature much in the way of resolution. Having escaped, the children speedily reunite with Dad—the murderous stepmother and family’s perilous finances go unremarked. Fortunately, the spectators seemed untroubled by the discrepancies and loose ends. They put their marshmallow-sticky hands together and clapped and clapped.