Theatergoers often hear the expression “entering the world of the play,” but few will have experienced anything like “Sleep Mo More” when it comes to total audience immersion. Part installation art, part dance-theater, part Uncle Will’s Haunted House tour, the U.S. debut of Brit group Punchdrunk creates a wild theatrical ride that the audience can steer for themselves. Working with Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, the innovative visiting company has taken over an old four-story school for its bewitching, one-of-a-kind production, shattering Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy and scattering its many fragments throughout the building, making it a found experience for auds to pick up and reassemble.
With Stephen Dobbie’s impressively crafted, omnipresent menacing soundtrack, designer and co-drirector Felix Barrett’s mysterious lighting and creepy/stylish abandoned-building setting, this spellbinding take on “Macbeth” is more likely to suggest films like “The Shining,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Wings of Desire” or “Barton Fink” than anything experienced in a legit house.
Wearing white, alien-like masks, theatergoers silently wander at will among the building’s 44 dimly-lit, heavily-draped, evocatively designed rooms. In their random journey they come across characters from the play enacting — through athletic and lyrical choreography and angst-filled mime — snippets of scenes or behind-closed-doors imagined encounters.
When one segment is completed, characters are likely to dash out of a room, making their way through the crowd and onto their next scene in another part of the building, perhaps on another floor.
The sight of masked audience members running down a long dark hall like a pack of mad ghosts in pursuit of a blood-splattered actor playing the Scottish king is in itself a visual highlight. But that’s just one of the production’s many startling sights, sounds, smells and touches — it’s a very sensory experience.
Enter a dining room and find an abandoned table setting, half-eaten food still on the plates. (Did we just miss a scene?) You may find yourself in a large hall filled with fragrant pine trees — are they moving? — where on one end of the hall a royal banquet is unraveling into slo-mo debauchery.
Or perhaps you’re in the company of witches in a basement lounge, or alone in a darkened study as a character — valet? porter? usher? — silently emerges from the shadows. Or you might come across a private moment in a royal chamber where passion, power and some nudity make audience members not only observers but voyeurs.
With the revival of her “The Donkey Show” — which reimagined “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at a disco — and now with “Sleep No More,” Diane Paulus, new a.d. of Cambridge’s A.R.T., has imported two experiential shows to shake up expectations about where theater can be set, how it can be presented and what its relationship is to an audience.
In these two shows Shakespeare is not so much spoken as gleaned, and if something is lost in the translation, something else is gained in the experience. This, after all, is not “Macbeth” — it’s a very different theatrical animal with its own agenda, not the least of which is to attract adventuresome audiences in search of what’s new and hip. The production abandons text, poetry and linear structure to create a more engaged audience dynamic. But one can also ask what does that experience add up to: a richly imagined reality or just a fleeting dream?
Whether this type of production becomes more than a novelty will depend on one’s nature, sensibility and endurance. Certainly, those without a fundamental understanding of “Macbeth” — and even those who know the play well — might be lost in the maze (in several rooms that possibility is literally true). For the enthusiastic crowd the show attracted in college-crammed Beantown, it is drama as digression, theater as the latest app, and Shakespeare presented in visual tweets.
Will the next production be as gripping or will it just become the old same-new, with better bar selections? (There’s a lounge in the center of the building where a jazz singer and combo perform for those who need a break, or a good stiff drink.)
As for its possible future in the U.S. after A.R.T., the production would be a staggering challenge logistically and financially to duplicate — load-in time alone was said to be months — and would need a market of young auds to support the endeavor. But in the right environment, it could be just the thing to reinvent and enliven a theater community.
Whatever one’s aesthetics, just be sure to bring comfortable shoes. As the old joke about the aging hooker goes, “It’s not the work but the stairs.”