Sleep No More, Macbeth … and New York

Tori Sparks of <a href=Sleep No More with audience members © Alick Crossley" />
Tori Sparks of Sleep No More with audience members © Alick Crossley

True story: Since New York City's McKittrick Hotel opened this spring, not one single guest has managed to stay through the entire night. This is partly owing to the eerie noises and frightful visions visitors encounter throughout its many rooms, as well as the erratic behavior of its staff. But mostly it's because the entire McKittrick is actually just a theater set for a fantastic piece of interactive performance art – and when the show is over you have to leave, your brain still buzzing from adrenaline and absinthe.

"Sleep No More" (which has recently been extended through September 17) self-identifies as "Shakespeare’s classic Scottish tragedy through the lens of suspenseful film noir." It's surprising that they adhere to the old playhouse tradition of refusing to refer to the play Macbeth by name – the effects of an ancient curse would probably only enhance participants' experiences, and anyhow "Sleep No More" contains only trace references to the Bard's play. As in, if you're someone who has allergic reactions to Shakespeare, you could probably consume this product without any anaphylactic effect whatsoever. Consider it labeled "produced in a facility that also processes nuts." Anyhow, all this occurs in four stories of prime Manhattan real estate (once home to psychedelic artist Alex Grey's Chapel of Sacred Mirrors) tricked out to resemble a swank hotel circa 1939 – except for when it's a graveyard. Or an abandoned hospital. Or a forest of dead trees.

What visitors will encounter varies greatly, but everyone's journey begins the same way: After cocktails in the hotel lounge, audience members are given masks (which they're not allowed to remove) and released into the McKittrick in disjointed groups that often separate people from those they arrived with. There is no set path through the hotel – the audience is heartily encouraged to explore, to rummage through sheaves of old letters and photos that litter the rooms, to open doors and drawers, feeling their way down tenebrous hallways toward who-knows-what. Performers materialize, interacting with the audience in a way that's part modern dance recital, part “Hell House.” It's up to you whether to follow the actors from room to room, or just run across them incidentally as you wander. Among the scenes you may witness over the course of the evening are a haunted cabaret act, a murder, banquet, an elaborate occult ritual – all of these, or some, or none – and many more. It's a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure, for grownups.

My own visit included a terrifying moment of disorientation in the morgue's walk-in refrigerator, after which I spent some time spying on a pregnant woman who seemed to be grappling with a stern housekeeper over a glass of medicine (very "Rosemary's Baby"). An elegant lady in the ballroom squeezed my hand knowingly, and then removed her wig, to reveal a completely bald head; then she danced frantically with an innocent-looking young man – who turned out to be not so innocent, I learned as I followed him up the stairs afterward. A friend had an even more intense evening. "I had four hands-on (literally) interactions with actors, two of which took place in empty rooms behind locked doors," he reported afterward. "It was mind-blowing. When they say 'fortune favors the bold,' they mean it."