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Mystery theater

British troupe Punchdrunk teams with the ART to explode theatergoers' expectations

(Photos By Stephen Dobbie And Lindsay Nolin)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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Imagine you’re walking through an alley behind an abandoned school. You pass a deserted playground, scale a flight of metal stairs, and enter the building through a rear door on the second story. Inside, it’s dark and disorienting. Music plays, something menacing and familiar. You keep moving and find yourself in a small boudoir, where the scent of perfume lingers. You might linger, too - perhaps wondering how and when and why your night at the theater turned into a stroll through a stranger’s bedroom. Eventually you push aside a set of thick draperies to enter a boisterous bar, done up in decadent 1930s style, where a live band plays and beverages are made with unusual ingredients. Question the staff, and you may learn that rosemary helps to ward off evil.

By now you’ve probably figured that the show - although that word is stretched nearly beyond recognition here - has begun. And while there won’t be much sitting this evening, it may be wise to buckle your metaphorical seat belt.

“Sleep No More’’ is the second production in American Repertory Theater’s “Shakespeare Exploded’’ festival and a co-production with the experimental British theater company Punchdrunk. ART artistic director Diane Paulus describes the evening as art installation meets living video game meets theater. The folks from Punchdrunk boil it down to “Macbeth’’ meets Hitchcock. With all that meeting going on, it’s hard to put a tidy label on these proceedings, but it’s safe to say that “Sleep No More’’ will be a new kind of experience for most theatergoers.

In fact the show, which starts previews Thursday, marks many firsts, not least Punchdrunk’s North American premiere, as well as a heretofore unheard bit of advice from the ART to ticketholders: Wear sensible shoes.

This is a show you move through. The creators of “Sleep No More’’ - Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett, co-director/choreographer Maxine Doyle, and executive director Colin Marsh - have transformed the Old Lincoln School in Brookline into a sprawling, labyrinthine set that audience members roam. You choose where to go and when. Perhaps you’ll follow a shadowy form that rushes past you on the stairs to the basement, or the sound of a party on the floor above. You might decide to trail one performer for an hour, or set off to find the three witches you glimpsed earlier. Take one whiff of the spoiled food in the Macduffs’ dining room, and you may run the other way. Go ahead and open the cupboards. Rifle through drawers. Find yourself completely alone in a room with an actor whispering in your ear.

“You follow your instincts, your appetites, your desires,’’ says Doyle.

“You have a series of experiences. They’re like jigsaw pieces, really,’’ explains Marsh.

“You pick your own show,’’ says Barrett. “And of course at any point, you can take off your mask and go to the bar.’’

“There’s always a bar,’’ Doyle notes.

“That’s where you can find the people you’ve come with and piece it together,’’ says Marsh.

“Or just take a rest,’’ adds Barrett. “It can be quite overwhelming.’’

It starts with a space
Punchdrunk’s creative team sat down for an interview back in May, when it was in town scouting deserted buildings, and spoke with the Globe again a few weeks ago during a tour of the partially finished Old Lincoln School set. The school fit the group’s top criteria for a space: lots of it, with age and character. These are artists who get excited at the sight of chipped paint and peeling wallpaper.

“The most difficult space is one that’s been lived in recently,’’ says Barrett, who has devised and designed 10 immersive theatrical productions for Punchdrunk, in such alternative venues as derelict warehouses, shuttered factories, and the garden of a 16th-century manor house, since the company’s 2000 debut - a radical reworking of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard’’ set in a former geological survey building in Exeter, England. “Once it’s been empty for a while, ghosts and echoes start to infect it. You almost feel the rot starting to set in, and that’s a much more creative starting point.’’

Punchdrunk was founded as a response to the formulaic experience of conventional theater: Take your seat and passively observe the action onstage. With a range of influences spanning European dance theater from the likes of Pina Bausch, the Fluxus movement, and American avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson, the founders set out to blur the lines of presentation by bringing dance, music, art, and theater together, weaving in elements of surprise and making the audience the epicenter of the action.

The idea of theater as a social, interactive event is at the heart of Paulus’s vision, as well. She first learned of the group in 2008 when she was in London directing “Lost Highway,’’ an opera based on the David Lynch film, and in the midst of planning her debut ART season. Punchdrunk’s “The Masque of the Red Death,’’ inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, was playing at an old Victorian town hall.

“I was hearing about Punchdrunk from opera people, theater people, everyone, and I took note, because here was an art event breaking out of its circle and reaching the culture in a larger way,’’ Paulus said. “I just knew that for my mission, to expand the boundaries of theater and move it forward, I needed to look at artists who are wrestling with that mission, too. And they’re at the top of their game.’’

Cast of 17, no dialogue
Punchdrunk first staged “Sleep No More’’ in 2003 with a tiny budget in a much smaller space. Eight members of the original cast will appear in this year’s far more elaborate staging, which features triple the space, a cast of 17, and a nightly audience of up to 300 people, who will arrive at staggered times and, outfitted with masks, be set loose in small groups of as few as five - or, for a lucky or unlucky handful, one. Shakespeare aficionados will be heartened to learn that the complete story of “Macbeth’’ is told during the course of the evening, albeit without a word of dialogue and with a large dose of creative license. Doyle jokes that Shakespeare probably just never got around to writing about Banquo’s dalliance with one of the witches.

“We’ve lifted the quintessential images and created an alternative physical and visual text of the play,’’ Doyle explains. “We work with dancers who are actors and actors who can really move, and have come up with this hybrid of performers who are very dynamic. The space is so epic it will eat you up and you’ll be ignored if you’re not really charismatic and alive.’’

One of those performers is Sarah Dowling, an associate artist at the Royal Opera House in London and a Punchdrunk veteran who plays Lady Macbeth in “Sleep No More.’’ She describes the relationship with the audience at a Punchdrunk show as the most extraordinary a performer can hope to have.

“There’s nowhere to hide,’’ Dowling says. “They can literally be breathing down your neck, looking into your eyes the way only someone very close to you would normally. All of the rules are thrown up in the air because of this allowed proximity and intimacy. I feel powerful, like I can really take them on my journey.’’

That proximity can also be disruptive, depending on the audience. Dowling recalls one Punchdrunk production that was presented in collaboration with Britain’s Big Chill Festival, an alternative music gathering that draws a young, party-oriented crowd.

“We’d have people who were drunk or heightened in some way, and they really tested the boundary between performer and audience in a way that tested our control of the situation,’’ Dowling says. “Ultimately, we want to lead the audience.’’

For all the freedom enjoyed by the audience, “Sleep No More’’ unfolds within a phenomenally complex structural framework and is 100 percent choreographed, down to where each performer is at a given moment in time, who he or she will meet and where, and how long a particular situation (Punchdrunk’s word for scene) will last. The plot unfolds in around an hour, but the evening lasts for three, meaning situations are repeated and audience members have a chance to encounter all the action.

The range of responses to Punchdrunk productions is always vast, say the creators. Some treat the space like a giant gallery; others are there for the storytelling. Still others may wind up hanging out at the bar listening to the band.

“You can learn quite a bit about yourself as a person,’’ says Doyle, “because you’re placed in a situation where you have to make decisions.’’

“People aren’t used to doing that in a theatrical context,’’ adds Marsh, “and they surprise themselves with how much they’re willing to do.’’

Or how little. Barrett expects American audiences will be more game than their British counterparts: “There’s something about the American character that’s quite exploratory. English audiences are actually quite reticent. They have to be teased into it.’’

Diane Paulus expects “Sleep No More’’ to do nothing less than change the course of American theater, and she believes the fact that Punchdrunk is making its US debut in Boston is a significant step in her mission to make this city a hub of cutting-edge art and culture.

“New York missed it,’’ Paulus says. “People are flying in from all over to see this. It’s going to challenge people, it’s going to stretch what people call theater, and that’s a conversation I’m interested in having.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

SLEEP NO MORE

Presented by the American Repertory Theater in association with Punchdrunk at the Old Lincoln School, 194 Boylston St., Brookline, Thursday through Jan. 3. Tickets: $25-$39. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org

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