Celebrities are often asked during talk shows and interviews, “What famous person, living or dead, would you most like to meet?” The answers range from Socrates to Tupac, Abraham Lincoln to Marilyn Monroe. Iconic deceased actresses are always an alluring favorite, but as much as I might want to ask Ms. Monroe, “Okay, really, what about those Kennedys?” for me the answer is always William Shakespeare. The Bard’s work has remained the backbone of literature and theater for centuries with no sign of waning, thanks to countless modern incarnations. Even though I’d like to ask Lincoln what he had planned for the day after the play, I yearn more to channel Macbeth and interrogate the writer who created the words he delivers with such despair.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
This soliloquy is spoken by Macbeth in Act 5 after Lady Macbeth’s suicide. The couple’s orgy of murder and betrayal has claimed their very souls and brought them to madness, ruination, and death. Macbeth is undone, personally and politically, and his utter devastation is visceral. When the second witch proclaims in Act 4, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” she is referring to Macbeth, who has just killed Duncan, the king. The machine is set in motion and cannot be stopped. Even though Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, the wallop it packs is electric. Be it Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, or Patrick Stewart in the title role, I’m always changed at its end.
No more so than the latest version, the wildly inventive Sleep No More, an immersive theatre production staged in a trio of converted Chelsea warehouses. Renamed the McKittrick Hotel, (in a sly nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo), the venue is five stories of meandering hallways and Gothic Scottish sets that include The Heath, an art deco restaurant where Daughter treated me to dinner beforehand. Accompanied by a 1920s jazz band, we dined on kale and quail, appropriate somehow for the evening’s aura. As we rose to leave for the show, our tuxedo-clad waiter took hold of my arm and leaned toward me. With his mouth an inch from my ear, he said in a whisper, “Fortune favors the bold.”
And bold you must be since this show is not for the timid. The audience doesn’t sit. Instead, you pick a performer to follow up and down stairs, through winding hallways and into rooms where different scenes unfold. Then you pick someone else. Or not. You’re on your own. There is no order to the scenes. There is no talking by either the actors or the audience. Belongings are checked at the door, so there are no jackets, handbags, or cell phones. So what is there? Evocative music, brilliant dancing, breathtaking fights, moments of tender romance, a strobe-lit banquet, a frenzied orgy. Oh, and you wear a mask.
Yes, you heard right. The audience looks like an anonymous, moving crowd from a Venetian carnival. It is one of the few things Daughter told me about beforehand. She also advised me of the following: Wear comfortable shoes because I’d be running around; don’t read too much about it in advance or I’d have expectations; count on being separated from her for most if not all of the evening; stand close to the actors if I want to be pulled into a scene. The next two hours found me pressed against a wall in a taxidermy studio, wandering the Birnam Wood that the witches predicted would move to Dunsinane, slipping through an eerily quiet insane asylum, and witnessing choreographed murders that were as much ballet as bloody. I did get pulled into one scene, but if I told you more about it you’d have expectations, and that would be bad.
Now that I’ve experienced it for myself, I’ve spoken to others who have experienced it numerous times, each time differently. Daughter went twice. My friend’s son went seven times, his brother three. Neil Patrick Harris says he’s lost count. He went so often that one night they let him be in it. I will go again. I need to see if the doomed pair manage to wash away the blood that has stained them from this world to the next.
“Out damned spot!. . .Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”
On the train home, mask in lap, I recalled that over dessert at The Heath, a messenger had appeared at our table and whisked Daughter away on the pretense of a phone call. She was taken to a mysterious woman who led her down a back hallway and warned of great danger. Before delivering her back to our table and releasing us into the shadows of Cawdor, the woman gave Daughter a talisman to wear, and words of advice to heed.
Don’t stray from the path.
Don’t be taken by the wolves.
It didn’t happen that night. Perhaps tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. . .
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