Sleep No More @ Old Brookline School, Greater Boston

cast list
Phil Atkins, Django Carranza, Sarah Dowling, Conor Doyle, Stephanie Eaton, Annie Goodchild, Hector Harkness, Geir Hytten, Thomas Kee, Poornima Kirby, Alexander LeFrance, Robert McNeill, Careena Melia, Robert Najarian, Fernanda Prata, Alli Ross, Vinicius Salles, Rusty Scott, Timo Shanko, Haley Jane Soggin, Tori Sparks

directed and devised by
Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle with the company
Having accumulated quite a fan base on the heels of opulent promenade productions like 2006’s Faust and 2007’s The Masque of the Red Death, a good number of theatergoers now eagerly await the latest production from British theatre company Punchdrunk, whose productions are ceaselessly immersive if mostly dramatically unsatisfying.

Their latest production, Sleep No More, which marks their U.S. debut, is a remounting of a production originally conceived in London in 2003. Transforming the Old Brookline School in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, this current production blends Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Hitchcock’s thrillers. Covering the school’s four floors, including its basement, most rooms have been elaborately designed in an attempt to envelop an audience in the proceedings.
Entering through the Manderlay Bar – a plush red cabaret performance space that also provides a respite for wandering theatergoers who find their way back during their journeys – audience members don masks and are admitted to the main part of the performance space as their numbers are chosen (based on playing cards distributed upon entry).

Soon, audiences will find themselves wandering aimlessly through the halls of an abandoned school, following a variety of characters as they wander from room to room, presenting scenes along the way. At one point I found myself on the sidelines of a Bacchic-style orgy, watching alongside a group of others as a naked man wearing a satyr mask was covered in blood from his head to his nether regions. At other times, I found myself strolling contemplatively, wandering from room to room with an eye on the details contained within.

There is no script when it comes to Sleep No More. In fact, the actors don’t speak much if at all, and there isn’t any sort of linear storyline to keep an audience following along. Rather, forewarned theatergoers must strike out on their own and thread together their own interpretations as to what’s happening around them.

The overall experience, as such, ends up being somewhat aimless despite the astonishing production design involved. And the design is sumptuous. Room after room presents strange discoveries – a grand hall replete with towering pine trees, a room entirely filled with soil, rows of bathtubs filled with blood and even a live eel. But still, for all the amazement involved, I found myself wondering what to make of what seemed to be fairly threadbare attempts to make Sleep No More at least superficially story-based.

By the end of the evening, I’d felt at times as if I’d found myself in the same room a bit too frequently (namely the tree-lined ballroom), and I certainly was never able to quite decipher who any of the characters were (though, in the program, characters like Macbeth and Banquo are listed). In addition, the show seemed to end without much of a bang. Whereas Masque of the Red Death had its culminating masked ball scene, Sleep No More, following a brutal hanging, seemed to peter out without presenting audience members with any sort of final unifying scene.

There’s no replicating the kind of theatre Punchdrunk creates, and there’s no possible way to sum up in a few mere paragraphs exactly what interested theatergoers are in for when they step into Old Brookline School, but there’s also something lacking at the core of this particular production, which kept me enthralled for three hours but ultimately left me cold.

In the show’s production notes, the directors express their desire that an audience experience their work as if inside a film. “Screen dialogues,” they claim, “become intense physical duets between characters.” Unfortunately, these duets never amount to much in the way of storytelling. There’s plenty of movement within Sleep No More as actors bend and whirr about but not much to clue an audience in as to how it ought to view the piece as a whole.

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