Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Regional Reviews by Matthew Small

Sleep No More
American Repertory Theater in association with Punchdrunk

Tori Sparks
Sleep No More? How could I after what I just experienced?

Earlier this fall, when American Repertory Theater's Artistic Director Diane Paulus told a group of journalists that Punchdrunk's co-production of Sleep No More with her company would change American theater, I assumed she was exaggerating a bit. Nope. Paulus was just being honest. Created by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle with their Punchdrunk company members, this British invasion slowly seeps under your skin, slithers up into your head and strikes your nervous system from within. The North American premiere of this 2003 Hitchcock-meets-Shakespeare show is like nothing you've experienced in the theater.

With a few lines of maniacally whispered Shakespeare, some brilliantly choreographed encounters, an ominous and thrilling score, and countless carefully lit scenic designs that melt into the building itself, the creative team and performers of Sleep No More cast a spell on the audience that's tough to break. There were even distinct aromas permeating many of the chambers (although no Olfactory Designer is credited in the program).

Audience members wore white medieval beak doctor masks as we wandered through dozens of meticulously designed environments in Brookline's transformed Old Lincoln School. Surely numbering into the thousands, the real stars of this show were the props. Props Master Cindy Lee-Sullivan and her team must have raided countless flea markets and antique shops for an unbelievable array of strange and mysterious treasures.

If you like theater, film, theme parks, haunted houses, mystery, music, art, dance, fashion, thrillers, good drinks (there's a bar with $2 rye punch), or all of the above, you must see Sleep No More. While you're reading this review, you should multi-task and open a second browser window to the A.R.T. ticket site. The production's intriguing, full-sensory approach is worth your entertainment dollars in this economy. Because the show unfolds in a choose-your-own-adventure style, it's impossible for me to provide a linear plot. Instead, I'll offer some suggestions to make the most of your experience. A theatergoing friend started this list before I attended and her insight was immensely helpful: 

  • Be prepared to walk around for a couple of hours. Sometimes you'll even want to run, so wear some comfortable shoes. For those with difficulty getting around, make sure to consult with the A.R.T. box office about accessing the space.

  • If you require corrective lenses, wear your contacts instead of your spectacles. As a glasses-wearer, I found that the mask provided a challenge. Thankfully, there was the option to wear the mask on my head.

  • Try to enter all of the rooms on all of the floors. Turn every doorknob you see. Take every stairway you encounter. Many of the sets in the show are not obviously marked. If you are in a room once and it's empty, try again later. There's a good chance you will witness some action another time during the evening.

  • You can touch almost everything you see. Open each drawer. Unfold a map. Pick up a key. Run your fingers through the earth below you. Look underneath the draperies. The details are incredible.

  • Revisit the MacBeth text before attending the show to enhance your experience (or check out the Scottish play's Wikipedia entry). It's not necessary, but may help you piece the puzzling storyline together.

  • Get as close to the actors as you want (obviously don't touch them, but they may touch you). Sometimes they will be looking at important items, and it's okay to look over their shoulders or hunch over their desks as they're working.

  • You will most likely be split up from companions at the top of the show. There are pros and cons to experiencing the action of Sleep No More on your own vs. with someone you know. If you are particularly jumpy, you might consider making a plan to meet up with a companion in the bar part-way through to continue exploring. There are dark corners I never would have turned if I were walking alone, but it becomes challenging to silently negotiate which character to follow when they run in separate directions.

After experiencing the show, I returned home and cautiously entered my apartment with a heightened sense of reality. The dim light from the lamps were waiting for something to happen. There were minute noises I had never noticed. Slowly opening the drawers in my kitchen, I wanted to see might be resting inside. Rarely is theater so viscerally and cognitively transformative that it travels home with you.

Sleep No More runs through January 3 (though I hope A.R.T. and Punchdrunk extend the run) at the Old Lincoln School, 194 Boylston St., Brookline. A.R.T. will offer a chance to see all its fall offerings during a special Shakespeare Exploded weekend, December 4 through 6. For tickets and information, visit the A.R.T. box office, call 617-547-8300, or purchase online at

Photo: Stephen Dobbie and Lindsay Nolin

—Matthew Small

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