Review: Punchdrunk's Sleep No More

sleepnomoreprogramnoteOne of the year's loveliest shows—one of the eeriest and most spectacular—requires a little investment. Not so much of money, but of time. Punchdrunk, the hotshot British company that builds ornate, immersive environments for its shows, has created Sleep No Boston. Despite the seven-hour round trip—part of it on a shockless, overnight Fung Wah bus—I can still honestly vouch for the experience. Admittedly, the second cast (most of the Brit players have headed home) can be less than convincing, but even with watered-down Punchdrunk, Sleep No More will expand your notions of what's theatrically possible. If your budget stretches to a Zipcar-enabled bop up to Brookline between now and February 7, I encourage you not to read after the jump: Punchdrunk's sharpest tool is surprise, and you wouldn't want to blunt the edge. That warning issued, you can buy tickets here, or click through to read about what you're missing....

Punchdrunk's impact has already been felt in New York, although the shows themselves haven't yet made it over here. (Scuttlebutt had it that a Faust was on its way to us, but venue and insurance negotiations proved too sticky.)

The company's predilection for "total" productions, ones that have baroque ticketing processes that lead to spooky, out-of-the-way locations, has made it one of London's breakout successes, and American creative teams have taken note. This fall, New York's Woodshed Collective got rave reviews for its The Confidence Man, a roaming production on board the Lilac Steamship. And while I thought the show was a dead loss from a dramaturgical angle, the textures of the Lilac told their own, attractive story.

In Sleep No More, tellingly, everything is mood and texture and sensation. Fragments of the Macbeth story and visiting villains from Hitchcock thrillers (Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers persecutes Lady Macduff) do exist, but they are drifting particles in the solution. We, along with these narrative bits, are suspended in the Old Lincoln School, four stories of creepy corridors and abandoned classrooms. In 44 of those rooms, the astonishing designers (led by Punchdrunk animating spirit Felix Barrett) have installed meticulous decors, throbbing with menace. The audience—split up early on and wearing anonymous blank masks—must wander in search of scenes, peer into cupboards and answer ringing phones. In Lady Macbeth's dressing closet, for instance, one can root through her drawers to turn up early drafts of her husband's fateful letter. The attention to detail is, frankly, overwhelming.

Now that I've made the pitch (and everybody left reading isn't planning on going up to Boston, right?), I can let fly with my reservations. The troubles with the second cast are serious ones: Choreographer Maxine Doyle likes high-impact modern dance moves, remarkable for their athleticism (a woman runs up a door) and quick acceleration into frenzy. This can be a bit of a stretch for dancers not entirely accustomed to it; I saw one witchy boogie devolve into uncontrolled stamping, and so I ended the night consciously avoiding rooms with ongoing scenes. According to my companions, I missed some astonishing routines, including a bloody pagan ritual, complete with goat head and fetus. My path, though, took me up into the lonelier reaches of the production, where I felt like a detective discovering evidence (blood eddying in a bathtub) of some recently committed crime. I enjoyed the quiet. And while moments of revelation were many, wandering alone through a foggy, abandoned Birnam Wood (really just Christmas trees in an auditorium) may well have been unforgettable. Certainly, I have been seeing it in dreams ever since.