Charles River

Charles River
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Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Friday, January 22, 2010

On "Sleep No More" at the A.R.T.

A bravura re-imagining of the possibilities for the theater, this inventive, deeply atmospheric mash up of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Macbeth is a combination of a haunted house tour, a dinner party theater production, and the cinematic frissons of David Lynch, whose sensibility may be too strongly infused into the evening.

What Sleep No More does daringly well is plunge the audience into the thick of the spectacle, so that one moves with and alongside the actors. Even the empty rooms, with their tingling uncanniness, carry the traces of what has gone on before or will transpire there shortly. Time is collapsed through a physical montage, a true Eisensteinian dialectic.

And indeed, the structure of the entire event is sustained not merely by allusions to or quotations from film, including, most effectively, soaring film scores, but by the logic of cinema itself. It’s like being an extra in a live-action silent movie. The most effective of these scenes which I witnessed was the final banquet where one by one all the characters assembled and silently conversed, gestured, schemed, cavorted, and finally convulsed into an erotic free-for-all fantasia, all of it in exquisitely timed slow motion – a form of staging that would be incomprehensible without reference to the technology of cinema. Yet it rewrites even that tired trope of the slo-mo dance. And it ends, in a determinedly and satisfying humanist move, with an old-fashioned bit of Aristotelian catharsis – the death of Macbeth – which savors of Grand Guignol, as well.

My own personal close encounter came with a tuxedoed actor who was cartwheeling about by himself in a stairwell. I followed him as he entered a little room whose floor was made to look like a cemetery, strewn with small graves, candles and a saint’s shrine. There he knelt as if in prayer before rising, and turning to me, locking me in his pleading gaze, he extended his open hand toward me in agonizing slow motion. I hesitated a moment, then gave him my hand. He clasped it, drew me in, then turned my hand over as if to read my palm. In a perversely intimate gesture he slipped my hand under his dress jacket and placed it over his heart. I could feel it beating. A perfect stage prop heart. He leaned over and, whispering in my ear, asked, “Am I alive?” Moved, I said “ Yes,” placing my other hand on his shoulder for reassurance. He dropped a shiny trinket on the end of a string into my hand, which later inspection revealed to be a bit of Hanukkah gelt, then off he spun again, arms flung wide, crying out in a stage whisper, “Then I can be born again!” I elected to leave him on his own after that and exited by another door.

Sleep No More is a Gothic hall of mirrors, in which the objects in rooms – statues, old radios, a bath tub lit by a ghostly spot, or a telephone gleaming sinisterly on a small table – take on the resonance of the piece and generate their own echoes. The overwhelming effect is a mixture of claustrophobia and delightful apprehension. The masks the audience members wear blank out personality. We enter a carnival space, but it is a somnolent carnival, attendant on shadows. This formal stricture makes the audience players, too. Eddies and swirls, small flocks and herds, form and re-form, following actors from room to room. A volatile space emerges, in which dramatic energy is produced by the audience as well as the cast.

Yet the gothic, finally, can be too much of a good thing and I found myself longing for some interiority, something beyond the attenuated and crepuscular Lynchian foreboding and the acrobatic pantomimes of tuxedos and evening dress. What I wanted was some language. Even taped voices in an empty room, now and then. Or as Ingrid so brilliantly suggested, a mix of registers – where one comes into a room in the midst of a full-blown Mamet-like tirade. There were one too many scenes of a solitary person – Lady Macbeth, Mrs. Danvers – crawling about on all fours, acting the madwoman.

But to conjure and maintain delirium is a tricky business and maybe the decision to ban dialogue is a wise one. A devotion to a certain species of silence is required if the spell of the haunting is not to be broken. Though the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, what Sleep No More gives one, in the end, is a vivid re-enchantment, a sense of deep mystery and a haunting cavalcade of images and scenes drawn not so much from the unconscious, as from the collective memory of a thousand plays and films. It is theater re-imagined as narcotic.

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