Alone, masked, and silent: that’s the way to see a play. For a couple hours last night, while wandering through six stories of a Chelsea warehouse on W. 27th that had been transformed by Punchdrunk into a Macbeth/Hitchcock noir horror fantasy, I was thinking about how elusive the theatrical transaction can be.
The place was full of great stuff, a candy shop, hospital wing, detective’s office/taxidery shop in which a fatal (stuffed) raven was disembowled to reveal a tickertape with one of the few Shakespearean lines I heard all night:
It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.
There were three distinct sets of people inside: audience members like me, wearing white masks; theater staff wearing black masks and blocking access to certain rooms and stairwells; and maybe 8 or 9 actors, without masks, doing various things.
Audiences want stories, so when we saw actors doing things — dancing, packing suitcases, trying to wash their bloody hands and faces in one of many bath-tubs, or smothering King Duncan with a pile of pillows — we gathered to watch. The scenes were brief, often powerful, and always fast: when the actors hurried on to the next room, they trailed clouds of awkwardly jostling masked audience members in their wakes.
The set was really the star, because you could play with it. I picked up pieces of paper, sometimes founds line from Macbeth on them, examined bird skeletons, ate hard candy, played a card game with one of the actors, though he did not choose me to give a shot of (apple juice?) whiskey at the end of the game. The soundtrack, from old Hitchcock thrillers, was gorgeous.
Some rooms were full of matter, overflowing with detail and debris. Oothers were airy and empty. One was a maze of leafless trees, another a spare half-grid of collapsing brick walls, thigh-high, with fake Baroque sculpture.
We wanted to see things happen, all of us in the white masks, & we hustled and wandered and sometimes broke into a jog as we tried to catch up to whatever was going on. We saw highlight scenes from the play — mine were the banquet, which I saw twice, the murder, the uncovering of the raven’s prophecy. We also saw lots of not-very-Shakespearean stuff: men fighting, couples dancing, a strobe-lit orgy featuring nudity and lots of stage blood, card games, and letters being written.
Diffuse and sometimes disorienting, the performance didn’t feel like a performance. The cast spoke little and seemed more dancers than anything — balletic, physical, intense. When I think back to this performance I feel certain I’ll remember the McKittrick Hotel more than any of the humans inside it.