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Innovative UK theater company Punchdrunk finds success with 'Sleep No More' in Manhattan
NEW YORK (AP) ' One recent morning in a sleepy part of Manhattan where cobblestones still cover the streets, Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle check the show report from the previous night's performance of "Sleep No More."
Producers often get such daily run-downs from their stage management team. The updates usually include details about injuries, audience reaction, technical details and items that need repair.
The list for "Sleep No More" is a little different.
"We need to replace a Blessed Mary Virgin statute," Barrett reads from the e-mailed report.
"The text above the couch in the nursery went missing," he adds.
"We need to source some additional bricks," he continues.
The list goes on: More brambles need to be nailed to a wall in one room. Dirt needs to be rubbed onto the pages of some letters. And, perhaps most oddly, more human teeth need to be mixed in with the candy jars at the sweet shop.
"They're such tiny little things, but they're critical for the show," says Barrett, its co-director and designer. His partner agrees: "To maintain the show is quite a lot of work," says Doyle, the co-director and choreographer.
Barrett and Doyle help run the British theater company Punchdrunk, which specializes in putting on immersive, genre-bending shows with high-impact modern dance moves that let audiences roam brilliantly imagined spaces.
In March, they made their New York City debut with "Sleep No More," one of their largest pieces and a work that has attracted thousands of visitors. It's a mash-up of dance, performance art and nonlinear storytelling with elements of both Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and film noir.
The creators say those genres tease out similar themes, such as the role of a powerful female, creeping paranoia and lust for control. In the show, various short set-pieces are wordlessly presented involving such characters as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Macduff, a very pregnant Lady Macduff, Duncan and a banquet scene with a bloodied Banquo.
Most performers are dressed in 1940s outfits, and Duncan's son, Malcolm, appears to have evolved into a hardboiled detective. Adding to the strangeness, there are naked witches and a techno-dance orgy. Overwhelmed visitors can retreat to a speakeasy, with a live band and a good bartender.
The experience is hard to explain ' and that's part of the point. "It doesn't actually make sense until you see it," says Doyle. "I think we're just deconstructing the nature of theatrical experience."
To make it work, Punchdrunk rented three adjoining warehouse spaces on 27th Street in the Chelsea district, spent months building the rooms and renamed it the McKittrick Hotel, a name that comes from Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
Theatergoers are handed a Venetian-style mask to wear at all times as they follow performers acting out scenes and wander the 100,000 square feet of space spread out over several floors. Every show has been sold out, it's been extended until at least September and jaded New York critics have been impressed.
"We're happy with one-star- or five-star-reviews. As long as they have a strong opinion on it," says Barrett, sitting beside Doyle on a sofa in the faux hotel's reception area. "People who say, 'Oh, it's all right' ' please! Say it's good or bad."
During the three-hour show, guests are encouraged to rummage about in the 100-odd rooms ' including an infirmary, taxidermist, padded room, tailor, cemetery, woods, candy store (look for those teeth among the lemon drops), libraries, apothecaries, laundry, even a detective agency. Want to open a drawer or sift through a pile of papers? Go ahead.
"It kind of goes back to the ethos of trying to rediscover the child within," says Doyle. "We all remember the things that we shouldn't touch but do and then the excitement when we have. I think this work is about that ' inviting the sort of forbidden touch."
The problem is the next morning when the creative team gets the daily report about things that are broken or went "missing." Like that statute of Mary. Or a pile of mail taken from Malcolm's office. Or, yes, bricks.
The creators say damage and loss is part of the cost of pushing the envelope. Punchdrunk asks its audience to explore and make their own connections instead of passively soaking in a traditional work.
"It is a response to the immediacy of this digital culture that we live in," says Barrett. "Everything is so accessible. Everything is designed to make us more sedate and apathetic, in a way. This is counter that. It says, 'Look, there are great things to discover. But you actually have to get out there and you have to sniff them out.'"
Not everyone is up for the challenge. One of their favorite audience members was an odd gentleman who showed up for a performance completely dressed in white and very drunk. He dozed, face-down, in a dentist chair, and later was discovered fast asleep in a coffin, lying on his back with his hands crossed.
"Quite a bizarre way to spend your night," Barrett says, shaking his head. But Doyle, ever the artist, took a different view: "Visually, it must have been amazing," she says.
The show's popularity ' including online guides created by fans ' has made the creators nervous. Though it may look chaotic, each show is rigorously choreographed and each environment is carefully controlled. It is designed to offer a different experience for everyone, with audiences seeing only parts of the whole and then filling in the gaps afterward as they share experiences.
"If you were to see the whole show, then you wouldn't be able to discover anything. It would be too easy. You wouldn't have to work for your content. And then you wouldn't have that same sense of ownership of the nuggets that you have discovered," says Barrett.
"If ever the work becomes too familiar, and it becomes too easy for an audience because of the wealth of information on the Internet or word-of-mouth, that's the day when we pull it. It needs to have that fresh shock and to have that sense of apprehension."
To keep things fresh, the creators say they have "a few more treats" they'll deploy over the next few months. Still-locked rooms will be opened and other spaces will be revealed at different times. "Actually, probably the end date would be once we run out of surprises to put in," Barrett says.
Punchdrunk, which was established in 2000 by Barrett, first put on "Sleep No More" in London and then took it to Boston, both housed in abandoned schools. Three and a half years ago they began scouting for a space in New York and found their current home, which offered a chance to reconceive "Sleep No More" on a bigger scale.
Some of the company's other productions include staging "The Tempest" in an old distillery and the art project "Tunnel 228" in an abandoned building near London's Waterloo station. It also mounted the opera "The Duchess of Malfi" in an industrial wasteland in east London.
Once the New York show ends, Punchdrunk will store all the props, many of which were found at flea markets. "We never throw anything away. We're hoarders as a company," says Barrett. "You can never have too much clutter."
The company is constantly changing its focus, not content with merely reproducing. They've created a show for children between 6 and 12 in England with a "Doctor Who" theme, and plan a project this autumn called Punchdrunk Travel, in which adults set out on an adventure ' possibly abroad ' for several days without knowing where they're going or exactly what's real.
Then there's another strange twist from a company that specializes in them.
"We want to do a musical," says Barrett.
"I thought that was going to be a secret," says Doyle, shooting him a look.
"I won't say what it is," he replies with a smile.