A scene from Macbeth in Sleep No More (Image credit: Robin Roemer/DKC/O&M)

For as long as I’ve been back in New York, I’ve been hearing about a mysterious show in Chelsea called Sleep No More. I say mysterious because those who have gone tend to talk about it with an almost cult-like furtiveness. They speak in strange in-show references—the Porter; the forest; the banquet; the ring; the shower—which elicit knowing Mona Lisa smiles. All I could put together was that it was some kind of immersive theater experience in which you wandered a massive five-story building while all around you cast members perform scenes from a mashup of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the Paisley Witch Trials. None of which seemed to make a lot of sense. 

Then, this past winter I heard that after thirteen years the show was about to end. (As of now, it’s set to close on June 16. Its real end date is not entirely clear; it has already been extended a number of times.) At the insistence of a number of my Sleep No More friends—the Wakers, I call them (because they sleep no more … Thanks so much, I’ll be here all week)—I decided to see the show.  

While it is filled with incredible performances, what I discovered felt less akin to a play or musical and more like a haunted house as reimagined by Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch. Each of the twenty-five-member cast perform hour-long individual and intersecting stories that repeat three times over the course of the night, while we in the audience are unexpectedly positioned as the spirits haunting this place. 

It gets weirder. Except for a mixture of intensely spooky sound design occasionally interrupted by pre-recorded song, the cast perform their roles almost entirely through a combination of action and dance. Almost no words are spoken during the entire three hours (and most of those are mumbled). Meanwhile, having been told at the outset that we are only to interact with the cast if they reach out to us, we wander around and amidst the actors freely, wearing eerie bird skull-like masks that we are not allowed to take off. 

Nurse Blue (Image credit: Stevan Keane/DKC/O&M

On one level those masks create a kind of uniformity that helps distinguish and direct our attention toward the actors. But I found that they also create the sense of us as a truly malevolent force in the characters’ lives, an experience reinforced by the fact that groups of audience members, sometimes numbering as great as fifty or more, follow the characters as they move from one room to the next, even literally chasing them when the characters run off. 

Because Sleep No More moves on its own timeline with each character from King Duncan to the lowly servants living out their own full hour-long loops throughout the building, when I first entered the story proper about twenty minutes into the show (audience members are admitted in small groups over the course of the first hour), I had no idea where I was, what was happening, or who was who. It was radically disorienting. And wandering around did little to change that. I felt as if I was in an impossible four-dimensional space in which stories were going on literally in every direction around me. 

But I found that disorientation also incredibly liberating. Knowing that there was no way to do or comprehend it all, each moment I walked into became itself the thing I was here for. I’d been told by one frequent attendee, if you hear music, you should go toward it, because something amazing is probably happening. Noting a crazed, pounding melody soon after I first started wandering around the building, I walked into one of the craziest scenes I have ever witnessed, something so intense that at first I actually didn’t know how long I would be able to handle it. 

I apologize for not describing it. I now appreciate that my friends’ furtiveness was not about cabals and secret handshakes, but an almost religious commitment on the part of Sleep No More devotees to not ruin the experience for anyone else. (Their self-discipline is pretty amazing.) But if you’re a Twin Peaks fan, imagine any of that series’ most shocking scenes happening in front of you. I don’t mean on a stage, or fifteen rows down the aisle. I mean six inches away. And yet, as crazy as it was, it was also somehow wondrous, an incredible gift that was being given to me and the others in the room. 

Later walking down a hallway, I came upon an empty room with nothing but a chair and a hanging lamp. It looked like the kind of room where someone would be interrogated. As I stood there, the light slowly grew dimmer. For a while I stayed in that growing darkness, wondering what might happen. Eventually the dark combined with my uncertainty about where this might be going overcame me, and I fled the room, frightened. And yet I kept coming back. Part of me wanted to know what the point of that room was, wanted to see the story that was clearly waiting to be told there. But also, there was something about becoming so totally frightened in an empty room that felt thrilling and miraculous.  

A speakeasy in Sleep No More (Image credit: DKC/O&M)

How can such weird and disturbing moments generate such deep gratitude? I have no idea. But that was my experience again and again at Sleep No More. I’d stay with a character for a while, or randomly turn a corner, and suddenly out of nowhere I’d find myself in the middle of something intensely moving, shocking, beautiful, or all at the same time. Sometimes I’d be surrounded by hordes of others who have clearly been to the show many times before and are wanting to experience something again; other times, it might just be a handful or less. One friend suggested I go looking for a certain character. I found him just as he began one of the most expressive and joyous dances I’ve ever seen, like the title number from Singin’ in the Rain, but happening all around me. And for the first few minutes I was the only one in the room. Again, the sense of gift and privilege was overwhelming.

In a city in which theater is lucky to last a couple months, Sleep No More has continued for well over a decade. And having experienced it for myself now, I find that so fitting. What is life in New York City if not an impossible to summarize set of experiences, the mundane suddenly blossoming around a corner or down the block into unspeakable beauty, horror, or pathos? This morning the dawn sky was streaked with pink. It was so lovely it almost hurt to look at. Ten minutes later, I heard someone yelling the foulest things.  

Rather than a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth having “murdered sleep” with his terrible crimes, maybe Sleep No More is a reference to the creators’ aspirations for us. Filled with silent dancers portraying surprising scenes while masked figures swirl and hover, perhaps the show wants to help us awaken from our own unseeing slumber, that we might see our lives, too, are filled with moments so infinitely precious and strange.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.