For years now it feels like we’ve been immersed in the word “immersive.”
Just in my inbox in the last couple of days, the word has been applied to a margarita-making class at Margaritaville Resort Times Square, New York’s new flight-simulation attraction, the new Apple TV+ series “Severance,” a falconry workshop, a HBO Max special concert series, and — wonderfully — a water park.
Maybe this says something about my inbox.
But surely it also says something about the impact and reach of “Sleep No More,” which premiered on March 7, 2011, on West 27th Street in New York. The show did incredible things with Shakespeare and contemporary dance, but it’s essential achievement was phenomenizing (if not inventing) a genre of entertainment experience that works on your mind and body like a kind of drug.
After two years, the show reopened last week, its tortured ghosts reawakened and reset on their doomed, endless, looping paths, its visitors welcoming the dramatically altered state of consciousness.
Apart from guests now having to wear two masks — a modified version of the original ones along with standard-issue KN95s — it feels like little has changed. The lights are still nightmarishly low; the air is still hot and thick with Bernard Herrmann’s cluster chords; the gaggles of spectators are still in hot pursuit of flexuous and attractive performers.
It’s tempting to say that, two years since we were all introduced to “social distancing,” the audience-performer proximity of the “Sleep No More” is exponentially more thrilling. And yes, this is defiantly anti-pandemic theater. But the truth is, the blurring of personal-space boundaries in the show has always felt electric and illicit. With no shortage of “immersive” experiences on offer, there’s still very little that compares with the quality of immersion in “Sleep No More.”
New York is always changing. The building that became the McKittrick Hotel once offered a different kind of escapist pleasure to the city’s techno heads. In 2001, the street was deserted and being eulogized in the Village Voice. “Sleep No More” premiered a couple of months before the opening of the center section of the High Line, and is now a brisk walk, past gleaming new apartment buildings, from the 7 line and the Hudson Yards complex.
Amidst all the change of the last several years, a revisit to “Sleep No More” feels, of all things, comfortingly familiar. Which at this point is its own kind of thrill.