What Bloody Man is That? (a review of “Sleep no More”)

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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We were a little late, leapt out of the cab on 10th Avenue, nothing to see on West 27th street toward the river but a couple of closed galleries north and a wall of blank warehouse faces south, pair of huge men hanging out a little ominously under a bare bulb down there.  But that doorway—there was a ten-foot star above it, nothing flashy, flat-black as the building in fact, was clearly a clue, the first in an evening of clues and little resolution.  We asked the men where the MacBeth performance was, if they knew where it might be.  They looked at one another long.  The huger one brightened very slightly.  “You mean the Hotel?” he intoned. “The Hotel McKittrick?”  Behind him the doors opened.  A nattily dressed and fake-ish hotelman eyed us, said, “You’re not too late.  But hurry.  Drop your coats at the check.”

The hallway in front of us was long and as flat black as the face of the building.  The coat-check people were friendly but from another era, maybe the thirties.  We were given no playbill or papers at all, nothing to go on but what we’d heard, and I’d limited my research so as to be open to surprise if not confusion.  At the front desk (or “front desk,” a prop), there was some muttering about our tardiness, but we were given our tickets and directed to another door.  “It’s your lucky night,” a film noir hostess said to me.  Then to my friend, “You, not so lucky.”

Our tickets were taken by a man in livery and we were shushed at each turn in the hallway and each landing on several flights of stars, eyed at each set of black curtains by more actors.  You began to realize.  Young actors playing the roles of opprobrius hotel people, with more and less intimidating effect, some imperturbable as Beefeaters, others more gracious, small roles for amounted to a chorus.

We emerged into a barroom, or, once again, “barroom,” a set, but with a real bar, where we were served a real drink each and given a real bill for $27.00.   A little jazz quartet was swinging away—good musicians, too—and we found a table, not difficult as the rest of the audience seemed to be leaving.  Everything flat black and a little cobwebby and like you’d stepped into a time machine and emerged in Chicago, 1932, a speakeasy.  The singer, an ebullient African-American woman in period dress, came to the table, said we’d best hurry along—drinks couldn’t go inside.  I reluctantly chugged my Manhattan and we joined the line moving through yet another black curtain, last people in.   At a podium we were given hard-plastic Freddy Krueger masks with long, protruding chins and exhorted to put them on, keep them on.

I’d been expecting MacBeth.

I really wanted to see MacBeth.

Entering the McKittrick Hotel

The witches stirring their caldron, predicting he’d be made King, predicting he’d be killed, too.  And Lady MacBeth, taken with the news, convincing him to kill the actual king, Duncan, and then mayhem from there forward, Malcolm sussing things out.  Lady MacBeth growing mad: “Out, out, damn spot!”

But this was a dimly lit and fussy installation (of some fascination, I admit).

We found a room full of taxidermy animals and skeletons—a beaver, I think, though there may have been some skeletal tinkering.

We came to a large room with a platform in the middle and a stuffed grizzly with a stuffed rat in its mouth, and suddenly here came what was certainly an actress, she followed by an actor.  They weren’t happy, these people.  The man seemed to be in his twenties.  The woman a little older.  Soon, inexplicably, he was naked.  She pushed her way through the masked crowd and fell into a rocker.  He kept up his silent, naked imprecations.  I noticed his balls were shaved and his dick a touch tumid—none of the shrinkage you’d expect.  They must have a warm dressing room or someone to fluff him or perhaps he fluffed himself—you’d definitely want to put your best dick forward going out among all those masks without a thing to say.

Some of the people in the audience wanted to stand really close to this kid, some closer yet.  Among them, you could pick out all kinds of types despite the masks.  I had a distinct feeling the group standing in the way of my view were from Maryland, I couldn’t say why.  Another group might have been Baptists; anyway, they were excited at this chance for anonymous voyeurism and vicarious sin.  There was a kind of bubbling, also a feeling of nice people trying to figure out what on earth kind of experience they were having.

I’m not as nice as some of those folks were, but along with them I was baffled.  If that was MacBeth, he was too young.  And why was he naked?  Was it someone else?  Banquo?  I didn’t remember Banquo being naked, either.  Duncan?  And, whoever he was, why wasn’t he saying anything?  And why was he in a hotel rather than a castle?  And why was it 1930, and where was Humphrey Bogart?

Honestly, it could have been an Edgar Allen Poe story or a Raymond Chandler novel with no changes of any kind and the confusion in my breast would have been no less.


The production, an imaginative and actually obsessive recreation of Shakespeare’s bloody MacBeth, is called “Sleep no More,” after a line in the play.  The British theater company Punch Drunk, flush no doubt from five sold-out months of the show in Boston, spent several millions converting three adjacent six-story warehouse buildings in Chelsea into this set, the conceit being that it was a hotel, basically an elaborate haunted house, but no screaming.  Apparently, a couple of hundred volunteers helped decorate the place.  100 rooms, each more creepy than the last, including a darkroom with photos hanging to dry—really grotesque murder-scene photos, a little vague but effective.  You could open the drawers on desks and open notebooks and reach into coffins.  Nothing was accidental, everything had been placed.  Lines from MacBeth were written willy-nilly on scraps of paper and stair railings and all over the walls in a small chalk script everywhere.  We wandered, climbed stairs, walked dark hallways, happened upon maybe 50 of the rooms, maybe as few as 30–I didn’t count, but had the distinct feeling of missing things.

I liked the show best when I could find the play.

We chanced to be standing in a room with bathtubs when Lady MacBeth came running in pursued by stagehands in black masks, audience members in white masks, and by her demons, as invented by the Bard.  There was one bathtub with pink water in it (I hoped warm) and she sat right in and tried to get that sin washed off.  She had very pretty breasts and a great figure altogether and one of the masked audience guys was leaning in awfully close.  But she didn’t say anything, not a single iamb, had to rely on some pretty fancy mime to get her anguish across, also splashing.

Then she got up (taking a hand from the close-observer audience guy, who may, come to think of it, have been a plant), stood there kind of emotionally, and trotted away, everyone following.  Not me.  My impulse was to get away from the crowd.  I can only compare it to my brief experience of the Hellfire Club in the Meat District, which was under the street next to my building when I lived there, contiguous with our basement.  I’ll have to write more on this another time, but suffice it to say that as a neighbor I had a free pass and decided to have a look one night.  The hellfire was a hetero S/M club and people were down there in leather and more leather and a certain amount of latex and, like, whips and chains and this and that, a lot of naked men and flaccid penises and black socks and just a few women, some guided by what appeared to be their lesbian keepers, paraded into sexual acts on platforms with all comers, so to speak, and followed in every step by a crowd of gawking onlookers.  If only they’d called it MacBeth I might have stayed more than half-an-hour.

Anyway: more rooms.

A cool room lit bluish with a forest made of real trees.  This stumpage must have been logged in the last three-to-five years as it was a single-species regrowth with trunk diameters under two inches.  Said the critic from Maine.

A barroom with a bar made of cardboard boxes, pretty cool, startlingly heavy and stable—cement filled, I decided.  Bits of the play written on wine labels.  A little breather, till, oh-no, here came two guys who really should have been studying for their mid-terms, no idea who they were supposed to be playing.  They drank a lot and banged the wine bottles down in anger.  They stewed and fumed and then they danced, rolling across the billiards table in one another’s arms, a stagy pas-de-deux that did not resemble a fight, but that was okay, as they made friends afterward.  I don’t know what characters they were meant to be.

A room with beds, one of the beds covered in gore.  We passed through this room several times, the last finding an actor and his entourage there, which, sadly, seemed to me to be my cue to leave.

A detective kept running through.  I think he must have been meant to be Malcolm.  He looked vexed.

A bathroom, finally.  I’d had to pee for an hour.  Or fifteen minutes.  Or half a day.  Very unclear how much time had elapsed.  A relief to be in a room with no cobwebs, though the lights were dim.

Another barroom, much like the barroom where my credit card was still being held, but with no liquor, just (finally) some witches.  They didn’t get to say anything, but they got to writhe a great deal and be naked again.  Quite a bit of torment, and all these spectators, also a baby in a tub of red jello and red sugar-paste, very disturbing, Duncan’s baby, no doubt, and honestly, pandemonium.  One which was of Asian heritage, lovely and convincing, one was of African heritage, ditto, another was a man.  The weird sisters indeed!  I leaned on a sticky pillar and just thought it was very much time to go.  The yard-sale tableaux were losing their fascination.  The actors had far too much to achieve within the chaos.

Our sense of direction was whacked, however, and we kept coming back to the same place, that room with the baby in strawberry jello.  You’d go up flights of stairs and walk for seeming miles and through rooms familiar and unfamiliar and open a door and you’d be back with the baby in jello, uncanny, crossing paths the whole time with this or that young member of the troupe and his entourage of masked viewers.  And always that detective, looking right through you.  I could have told him exactly what had happened.  Much of what he needed, in fact, was written on the walls.

I found that if I took my (hot, uncomfortable) mask off and held it behind my back and leaned provocatively against a railing or tub or whatever was available that a crowd would gather instantly to stare at me.  Finally!  They seemed to think, This must be Duncan.  Anyway, unlike all the other actors he’s old enough!

But quickly I’d be busted by one of the black-mask attendant people.

Idea: go to a Halloween store, get one of those black masks and smuggle it in, stand by a curtain and give the people from Maryland false advice in an ominous whisper: “Ladies and gentlemen, the players would be more comfortable if you’d all take off your pants and underpants for the remainder of the performance.  And men, try to keep a little blood in your penises.”

You know?

We stumbled into a large room with a banquet table and more of the audience that we’d seen at any one time–a large crowd.  Duncan’s ghost was bothering the proceedings, and it actually was a good moment of theater, all those characters in a line, ready to say their lines.  But no.

The evening seemed to be coming to a head.  I knew this meant leaving in a crowd of masks, no fun.

So I screwed up my nerve and asked one of the attendants how to get back to the bar and she couldn’t have been nicer, solicitous, in fact, like she was worried I was too terrified to go on.  And soon we were back in the bar and the singer was singing and it was all so fake and false except the credit card receipt, which I duly signed.  But of course the hotel McKittrick was supposed to be fake and false.  That was not the problem.

The problem was I had wanted more MacBeth.

I guess the Roman Polanski version (1971) will have to do, Netflix.

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