The McKittrick Hotel, I thought, peering at the tall black entrance doors, certainly doesn’t look like any hotel I’ve ever been to. I walked to the end of the line and waited behind some people speaking French while they waited behind a long stretch of diverse people. How many of them were tourists, I thought, and how did so many people know about this show? I’d only just heard about this show from a friend.
I looked down at the guests’ feet to make sure I wasn’t the only square not wearing “comfortable shoes” like the strange (but cordial) invitation suggested, but the people’s shoes ahead of me didn’t look any more comfortable than my brogue boots. “Here for Sleep No More?” a man with a strong African accent interrupted, asking for my ID. I nodded to confirm and right after he scanned my ID the line began to move into the black doors. Suddenly a nervous shiver shook through my body and not the kind inspired by a chilly night, but the kind of shiver inspired by finding myself out of my comfort zone. This is the first show I’ve ever attended alone; the dark tunnel lit only by the red exit sign didn’t make me feel any more at ease.
I walked past a couple dropping off their coats at the coat check and noticed a notebook with a rose that was almost black. “Is this your first time,” the man behind the counter asked, probably having noticed how distracted I was. “Yes,” I responded. He gave me a playing card with a bird dressed in armor. A jack.
“Enjoy your stay,” he spoke softly.
I followed two of the other guests into a dark tunnel that felt more like a dark labyrinth. Welcomed by some old blues on the radio and a woman with a Latina accent yelling “Champagne cocktail and Absinthe,” I knew I had arrived at the Manderlay Bar. The room was dimly lit and covered with dark decor, from crimson tablecloths, to mahogany wooden chairs and a glossy black piano. I sat down at two different tables before having come to terms with the fact that no amount of awkward table-hopping was going to make me feel comfortable.
A man in a black tux took to the stage and with a strange accent, I couldn’t quite figure out, asked if we were enjoying our drinks. I hoped he wouldn’t ask me why I didn’t have a drink. He didn’t. Instead he said, “If you have a jack, queen, or king, follow me to my right.” Jack. That’s me. I stood up and followed him past the heavy crimson curtains and into a small grey room.
A tall man with a French accent entered and handed us plastic white masquerade masks. The moment I put on the mask I felt myself completely at ease. As if I’d disappeared. He urged us not to speak, urged us not to take off our masks (for our own safety), and urged us to be as curious as possible. “For our own safety?… that’s not scary at all,” I thought.
I shook with excitement, ready to explore freely like a child. Ready to engage in this experience alone. Suddenly, I didn’t feel too bad about being alone. Especially considering that in the first room of this labyrinth hotel, I was greeted by taxidermy bores, birds and stag heads. The room was dreary and grey, like I’d just walked into a Hollywood crime drama from the 20’s. Think, Film Noir.
After ending up in the large living room and watching two men dance themselves into their suits, I followed them into a ballroom, where a large cast of actors smiled reluctantly at the sight of each other. When the cast embraced one another, they seemed to speak under their breaths. It’s not like the music was loud enough to overpower their voices, they really weren’t speaking very loud.
It felt like I was watching a silent dream unfold before my eyes.
It felt like I belonged there too, as if I was as much a part of that scene as the actors. I almost thought that some of the masked audience, or the guests were actually in on their routine, for the cast interacted with them so gracefully and naturally that the lines between staged and unscripted blurred in my mind. I’ve never experienced a sense of immersion and presence like this before, considering how invisible I felt after having put on the mask.
The music intensified and so did the scene, changing from joyous dances to looming conflict. A pregnant woman passed out on the floor and the nurse carried her out of the room. I wanted to follow the pregnant woman, and I was ready to, until I noticed the lights dim behind me and fog covered the room. I knew from this moment on that this was a show I had to see more than once.
I turned around to find one of the dancers surrounded by guests. She breathed heavily and stared at her hands as if she was losing all sensation in her body. She looked as confused and scared as I was. I thought she was being possessed. She took off her hair [I wouldn’t have even guessed that it was a wig!] and she began to dance violently. I was entranced by her every move as she rolled around the floor and shot back up as if she was fighting her own body for control. A man jumped from high to combat her and she danced and kissed him to near death. Every time she kissed him he’d cough,
…which was creepy and awesome as hell, so I surely had to follow her once she ran out of the ballroom.
We traveled through dark rooms with statues of the Virgin Mary and stained glass with Saints. Some rooms were so creepy that I didn’t even consider wandering them alone. We arrived in a big room. The bald woman and a thin Asian lady began to strip one of the other dancers in the center of the room. A man arrived with a confused expression on his face and the music suddenly picked up, electronic this time, like the beginnings of a dance song. I began dancing along because I’m a sucker for electronic music, when the lights begin to flicker and the strobe lights begin to flash.
Then, the music picked up. So much was going on. I saw snippets of everything happening all at once. The man that had arrived and triggered the strobe lights, ran around the room with blood on his face. The thin Asian woman held up a fake bloody baby. Behind her stood the man they’d stripped with a huge stag’s head covering half his body. [I honestly thought the bloody baby looked real.] I had no idea what the hell was going on, but I knew that the Asian woman, the naked man, and the bald woman must be the witches, and that the baby must have been the pregnant woman’s that passed out in the ballroom. Where else would the baby have come from? I don’t know.
I just knew that I had to run after the bald woman. I noticed that I was more comfortable than when I started. Comfortable enough to touch the props, explore the drawers in the rooms, smell what they were drinking, even confident enough to make eye contact with the bald woman whenever she stared at me. I knew that if I stared at her long enough she’d notice me. She finally did when we arrived at the ballroom again. She grabbed my arm and placed in on her back. Her dress felt like velvet. I could have been intimidated, but I wasn’t. I was at ease dancing with her.
I wasn’t certain of what I felt, but I was certain that she made my night.
I found myself so curious that even what would have seemed like a dull moment intrigued me, because I knew it was going to lead to something. I found myself addicted to the sense of independence I felt, addicted to the feeling of empowerment. The show seemed to end in the ballroom when the cast ended up at the long dinner table. They all had wine in slow motion and stared at the man from the strobe room with disapproval. The character’s dispersed and I followed the bald woman back to her room where she put on her wig and her dress and we returned to the ballroom, where the show seemed to loop all over again.
The experience was too addictive, from the complete immersion to the affirmation that no path was the wrong path. I’ve never experienced a show so unique or so inspirational. After we climbed the last flight of stairs, we ended up back at the Manderlay Bar. I remember feeling as if I just walked out of a dream, a dream we had all shared and had woken up from together.