Last night I was standing on the corner of Madison and 62nd Street waiting for the light to change, when a cab slowly drove by. It crept out of the shadows as if from a dream.
As it drove by, I saw, propped up on the passenger seat, a mask: an oddly shaped white plastic carnival mask. It surprised me. It was a mask I recognized.
I crouched down a bit to get a better look at the driver, but his face was hidden in shadows. The cab continued slowly by. Its light was on. It was available. I wondered if I should hail it and get in. Wondered if the strange performance that I had gone to the previous Friday was somehow still going on.
Was this the final test, days later?
Would the driver say, “When was the last time you visited us at the McKittrick Hotel?” and ask to see my playing card?
“Last Friday,” I would answer.
“Welcome to the McKittrick Hotel,” a girl in the coat check had greeted us. I had arrived with friends to the Chelsea warehouse where the performance “Sleep No More” was going on. We checked our coats in the dimly lit entrance and were each handed a playing card as a ticket. We were led through total darkness and into a swanky 1930s cabaret bar.
I was told to expect a cross between Macbeth, Hitchcock and “Eyes Wide Shut.” I was excited. I had heard about Punchdrunk and their previous theatrical piece in London, where they had taken over an old hospital.
We have a drink as an MC with a martini asks which playing cards we have and eventually ushers us into a room where we are given a mask and asked to keep it on at all times.
So begins a very strange journey through the five-story hotel set.
An elevator operator lets different people off at different floors and tells us that we will have more luck on our adventure if we travel alone. “Fortune favors the bold,” he says, as he lets me off on the third floor. It’s the last words I hear uttered for two hours. The performance is mostly silent.
The sets are amazingly elaborate and seemingly endless. They are very detailed: a graveyard, a bedroom, an old street with shops. A detective’s office. A ballroom. A bar. Many of the doors open and I make my way through.
Other people with masks are everywhere. Also exploring. Many going in different directions. All continuously angling for a better view of the (sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, sometimes monotonous but always interesting) action. I am constantly scampering to get out of the way. I stumble upon a character in a bar. A death scene. A dance. A woman in sequins runs by. I follow her.
It’s strange to be one of the anonymous masked ones. It’s very voyeuristic. The performers are without masks. That’s how you know who they are. They look normal.
At first things don’t make any sense. A character here, a character there. I wander from room to room. At times I was alone with characters. At times alone with other anonymous masks. Some characters I follow. Some follow me. A story starts to emerge.
Eventually and organically, I am led back the bar where there is now a very talented cabaret singer and remove my mask.
Talking to friends, we discover we each had a completely unique experience. We had seen things in different order. We had seen some things twice.
It was kind of incredible. I’d never experienced anything quite like it.
And then days later, there was that mask in the cab. The words of the elevator operator stuck with me. “Fortune favors the bold.” There was a single moment of possibility. But then, alas, the cab zoomed away without me.
I glanced around the empty street but saw no one. Continuing on, I realized the power of the performance I had witnessed as I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I was being followed.