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The Perils of Too Much Choice

Katharine Coldiron | 15 Nov 2011 13:00
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If you were to ask a gamer whether he wanted more or less choice in any given game, he would probably say he wanted more. If you were to ask him whether, in the context of a live-action video game, he wanted a completely open, totally explorable world, he would probably start salivating. But enjoying a videogame to its fullest extent involves necessary restriction of choice. I wouldn't have known this with as much certainty as I do now without Sleep No More, a play (after a fashion) currently running in a limited engagement in New York City.

I wanted to stay in the room with the sculpture of dozens of doll bodies hung in an elaborate and deeply disquieting mobile under a lighting design and stare at it for hours.

Sleep No More is an interactive theater experience based loosely upon Macbeth, with echoes of Hitchcock's Vertigo and Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. (There's also some Eyes Wide Shut and "The Masque of the Red Death" in there, too.) Audience members are ushered into the "McKittrick Hotel" (a series of converted warehouses in the Chelsea neighborhood), given masks, told not to speak or take photographs, and unleashed for three hours to wander through six floors of immersive theater. Each of the floors has a different theme: graveyard, hospital, hotel lobby, grand ballroom, and so forth. The dozen or so performers go through their routines (there are eleven major scenes, and many smaller encounters) with or without an audience, and they often stride from room to room with a gaggle of white-masked people following close behind, or scribble something on a piece of paper as intent voyeurs attempt to read over their shoulders. The atmosphere is perhaps the most important aspect of the experience; dialogue, visibility, accessibility, and any possible method of applauding the performers for their work have all been sacrificed to it. The show has been running since March of this year, and was previously performed on a smaller scale in London and the Boston area.

I went with my husband, a videogame designer, to Sleep No More in late October. I am into cinema and literature, and he's into games, and we thought this show would be a terrific intersection of our interests. We were simultaneously disappointed, sort of, and totally blown away, sort of.

We wandered around the six floors of the McKittrick Hotel, in the dim fog, looking for things to see, pieces of a puzzle to put together. We watched scenes unfold in front of us: a witch in a red dress cut up and ate a steak, stared at me and unnerved the hell out of me; a woman bathed a naked man who then departed the room, leaving her to freak out over an imagined stain on her short black nightgown; two men fought over cards and one killed the other. A man lip-synced "Is That All There Is?" and cried real tears. A bald woman tore off her wig and did an intense Martha Graham-like interpretive dance that was only seen by a dozen audience members. The whole time, middle-frequency noise alternated with the deafening score for Vertigo - one of the most evocative pieces of music written in the twentieth century - to bring the unease factor to 110%.

The thing that most fascinated me about this experience was that the building itself, the so-called McKittrick Hotel, is far more attention-getting than any of the living performers. It is an astonishingly detailed and richly visual world. There are items in every drawer, there are rooms behind every door, there is decipherable writing on every piece of paper. I wanted to pick up and handle all the books, and read the underlined passages. I wanted to stay in the room with the sculpture of dozens of doll bodies hung in an elaborate and deeply disquieting mobile under a lighting design and stare at it for hours. I stood in a room that contained nothing but a single chair and a swinging light fixture, mesmerized by the pattern of the chair's moving shadow, for several minutes before my husband nudged me to move on.

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