Theatre: A.R.T.’s “Sleep No More” is surreal, sexy, violent

BY KAN YAN

“Sleep No More,” a coproduction of the British theater troupe Punchdrunk and the American Repertory Theater, is part Macbeth and part Hitchcock, but one needn’t need to be familiar with either to be taken by the experience, as KAN YAN found when he joined the audience, wearing white masks and following actors through the halls and classrooms of the Old Lincoln School in Brookline. “Sleep No More” runs almost every night except
Monday, through January 3rd.

We arrive thirty minutes late and are immediately ushered into a narrow, pitch-black tunnel. I feel my way further into the darkness until it opens into a velvet-lined bar bursting with jazz-era people. Boylston Street leads into dark elementary school into pitch-black hallway into anachronistic jazz club into dark elementary school full of people wearing creepy white masks. I shoot past the white masks, reading books, and lounging in a parlor impeccably matched to the time period of the club. In the dark hallways of the school, a faraway, longing music plays, Victorian lamps rest on desks kept at a distance saturated with potential action, and bodies each topped off with identically long masks wander about slowly and silently.

A maskless woman touches my chest and breaks the wordlessness, “Come! … Come!”
We’re in an elegant bedroom with her maid. She’s kicking and flailing. The maid keeps her baby from her. I don’t know why. Around them a crowd of white masks silently gathers, sometimes watching intently, sometimes looking about the room. The maid drags her into the next room. She has undressed and is naked, beautiful and frightening, with madness in her eyes. She looks about her, seeing white-masked ghosts the maid cannot. She looks through my mask into me, her eyes wild with fear. She crawls into the bathtub, curls up, waiting for a feeling of safety that never comes. She slits her wrists. The water reddens.

She flails onto the floor shaking, naked, alone among the masks looking down at her.
I walk through a forest. The smell of pine is overpowering. How is there grass in this school? Each room is era-perfect, down to the odors and sounds. From behind a mask, with blackened edges of vision, there is a distinct feeling that one has entered a film. There are dozens of rooms, each holding at least a mask or two silently wandering. I wonder whether being alone in a room is more frightening or less. What a perfect place for a murder.

A woman is on top of a bookcase. She’s shaking and licking her hand, then she wipes something off a statue of the virgin. She is obsessed with its impurity. A shirtless man in suspenders launches up onto the bookcase and the two dance in a beautifully choreographed struggle atop the case before falling to the floor among the masks. They fly around each other’s bodies silently. Only the mad speak, and they speak to masks they only half believe exist.

Time slows on occasion and we are totally enrapt. We lost our reality somewhere in the dark before the jazz took us, so we are totally here with them in the madness of their frantic paranoia. They are not alone. They are with us. Yet we are alone. We, behind the masks, the unreal, the imagined.

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