Sleep No More

sleep-no-moreI’ve been reading a lot of books previously reviewed by Kinsey and Rebecca on this blog, so haven’t had much to post about, but I’m going to piggyback on Kinsey’s review of a play, and tell you about a performance I saw on a recent work trip to New York City.

I ran across Sleep No More when looking for a hotel to book near the training session in the Chelsea neighborhood, and Google lists The McKittrick Hotel as sleeping quarters, when in fact it is an elaborate set piece, in which the performers travel through the various rooms while the audience follows. Sleep No More is described as a noir-style take on Macbeth, which are two of my very favorite things, so I was pretty quickly sold on it, though it took me a bit longer to pull the trigger on the $85 ticket price.

My general impressions:

When I was waiting in line, a couple of teenagers behind me were psyching themselves out, wondering how scary it would be and if they would scream, and I was annoyed at them for treating it like a haunted house (this comes back to me later).

All audience members are given white masks (not unlike the Scream mask) that we must wear throughout the performance, and we must not speak. I was first let into the space, masked, with maybe 5 or 6 other audience members and we sort of wandered around empty rooms for a while. I had a sudden fear that I would manage to go through the entire space and manage to somehow miss any live performance, just because that seems like the sort of idiotic and embarrassing thing that would happen to me. I was trying to convince myself that I would be satisfied with just how cool the various room settings were, but I have to admit that I was relieved when I finally saw a performer.

Once you have run across one performer, they will usually lead you to others, and you can chose to stay with your original or switch off with a new one. I found Macbeth himself first, and then Lady Macbeth, for the dramatic scene in which she coaxes him to kill the king and become king himself. When Macbeth ran off set, I decided to stay with Lady Macbeth, and only realized later that I’d missed the killing of the king.

However, I actually ended up in the same scene again with the Macbeths, probably about an hour later, so I followed Macbeth this time, and got to see the pivotal death scenes of both Duncan and Banquo. (Though I hung out for a while in the graveyard set, I never got to see the three witches, who I was sure would eventually appear.) I also got to watch a spooky tailor stitch up the worst seam I have ever seen in my life. I had a small impulse to try to intervene, at least with the sewing itself.

Though Sleep No More is described as a play (or immersive event or whatever), it is really a dance performance. The actors do not speak, but rather have highly physical choreography they perform. (Also, audience members are never pulled into a participatory role, so you can be reassured on that point, if that’s not your thing.)

So, it was very novel and entertaining, but I had a realization about an hour in that really made the performance for me. There were probably about a hundred or two masked audience members wandering the three (or four – it gets a little confusing at times) stories of the hotel in all, and in scenes where there are multiple performers interacting, all of the audience members following each one all combine into quite a crowd of blank white faces drifting about and coalescing around the various characters. It really did start to seem exactly like a haunted house, only you, the audience member, are one of the ghosts.

You and the others sort of drift aimlessly around with only each other, who you cannot speak to, and as soon as any “live” character appears on the scene, you all immediate glom onto the person, surrounding them when they are still and trailing after them when they are moving. In fact, for a couple of scenes, characters had to sort of gently wave ‘ghosts’ out of their way, which they did very professionally, exactly as one would sort of wave away a mist or cobweb.

Once this occurred to me, the whole thing took on a more delightfully spooky dimension. Seriously, how many times in your life will you be able to experience being the one haunting an old hotel? This works perfectly for the story of Macbeth, too, which is all about hauntings, both literal and of the conscience.

One caveat to the whole thing, though: the experience itself is a lot of fun, but it is all very scattered and nonlinear to the extreme, so if you prefer more plot-driven theater, this might not be for you. I knew beforehand that it was loosely based on Macbeth, which is my favorite Shakespeare play and one I’m fairly familiar with, so I recognized some scenes, force-interpreted others, and was completely puzzled by still more. (The inept tailor was given a tiny rat skull, which made him despondent? I don’t remember that from Macbeth.)

—Anna

Podcasts and a Scrappy Little Broadway Show I Have High Hopes For

I wish I had some good books to recommend here, but I’ve been in an odd rut lately of reading things that weren’t bad,, but ended up being vaguely disappointing. (I’m looking at you, Bradstreet Gate, because if your whole plot is centered around a murder mystery, you need to TELL ME WHO COMMITTED THE MURDER.)

But that doesn’t mean I’m not consuming media, because my lengthy commute to work means that I listen to A LOT of podcasts. Sometimes I feel as thought half the things I say start with, “So I was listening to this podcast . . .” But I just hear so many interesting things on so many different topics, told in such a personal way–it feels like I have very smart friends riding along with me in my car as I negotiate the DC highways. I do listen to a few of the big, famous podcasts that I don’t feel the need to plug–the NerdistSerial, and Pop Culture Happy Hour are all great, but if you listen  to podcasts at all you probably knew that already. But there are some smaller podcasts that keep me sane and entertained:

Read it and Weep calls itself a good podcast about bad books, movies, and TV, and the general model is that three friends (plus rotating guests) read or watch something and then get together to make fun of it. It started when these guys decided to read the Twilight books so they could mock them in a knowledgeable way, but has expanded to them watching and reading the occasional good thing, or a childhood favorite, and they even take sponsorships/suggestions from listeners. Although the episodes where they review something bad are still the most fun–you’ve never heard anything as sad as these 20-something dudes trying to find something nice to say about Fifty Shades of Grey. I like it because the commentary is truly funny, but also smart–they’re good at breaking down what does or doesn’t work about a particular piece of media and they’re happy to admit when they actually enjoyed something. They are also quick to call out sexism or racism or other things that make them feel gross, so I can rely on them getting upset about the things that make me upset. But in a much more funny way.

Another favorite pop culture podcast is Extra Hot Great, a podcast about TV by the people who run previously.tv (and used to run Television Without Pity). This is another funny one, with smart criticism about TV. They do different features, including one I love called Is This Worse than Jazz, where they debate whether a particular pop culture item is worse than jazz (maybe this only works if you hate jazz). They also do a lengthy quiz each week, which allows me to shout answers out loud in my car.

I first found You Must Remember This through her series on Hollywood and the Manson murders, but I’ve found all of Karina Longworth’s podcasts about Hollywood history fascinating. She tends to do “seasons” that focus on a specific topic, such as Manson, the studio system, or the current series on the blacklist. One of the disappointing books that I read in recent weeks was about a scandalous Hollywood murder in the 1920s, and I think I didn’t like it because was drier and less sympathetic than Longworth’s calm, gentle storytelling. My other big take-away from this podcast is that almost everyone in Hollywood seems to have been a miserable depressive that drank themselves to death; I almost cried in my car listening to the story of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

I do occasionally branch out from pop culture and Hollywood, and Rex Factor is one of my favorite history podcasts. Two British guys (Graham and Ali) reviewed the history of every king and queen of England, ranked them on qualities such as scandal and “battle-iness,” and then held a bracket-style showdown to determine the ultimate monarch. They do a thorough job of reviewing the history, while also getting to the interesting trivia and being funny along the way (Ali is always so hilariously concerned when first cousins get married). I was a little worried that they would stop podcasting after they finished all the English rulers, but they’ve recently started up again with the kings and queens of Scotland. A word of warning–the early Saxon kings are a bit of a drag since they all have similar names and there’s not a lot of existing information, but things get more interesting as history moves along (there was definitely way more sex with nuns than I was expecting).

And finally, on a different note, I have talked here more than once about how I tend to recommend things that everyone already knows about. The Goldfinch?  The Martian? You didn’t really need me to tell you about those. But now I’m about to tip over into parody here: have you guys heard about Hamilton? I mean, seriously folks, it’s really good. I was lucky enough to see it on Broadway at the end of March (I bought my tickets back in September and then tried not to think about them too much since I was convinced a meteor would crash into the theater before I got to go) and it was AMAZING. But I can also wholeheartedly recommend the cast album. Because the whole show is sung–there’s really no spoken bits of the story–listening to the cast album really does let you hear the whole show and it’s just genius. It’s also awesome music to listen to in the gym. I think this Hamilton thing is really going to take off! (Hamilton also won a Pulitzer prize this week, and Lin-Manuel Miranda posted a hilarious picture on Twitter of the celebratory Pulitzer pies.)