A few weeks ago I embarked on another journey into New York City to look at possible party venues. My friend Emily (who runs Hot Rabbit and is my co-producer in the new Sweet Fox / Rebel Cupcake joint venture into First Thursday awesome) took me to a couple of places she was excited to produce at. First stop was the Manderlay bar at the McKittrick Hotel. “You know, the Sleep No More venue,” she said.
At this point, the only thing I knew about it was that my dear friends Miriam and Victoria were planning to go and had told me their understanding of the show. Experiential theater, where you arrive at a reservation time and are unleashed into a world created to support a play loosely based on Macbeth. I knew you could walk around the sets, open drawers, read books and that it was an interesting place to roam. Every now and again you would see actors performing a scene and you follow them from room to room piecing the story together yourself. And that it is impossible to see the whole thing in one visit.
It sounded intriguing already, and going into the Manderley Bar at the hotel with Emily was an awesome way to see more of it. We were greeted on West 27th Street by a burly bouncer who radioed Emily’s friend the bar manager. Shortly later a tuxedoed gentleman opened the door and brought us up a back staircase into a bar like none I’ve ever seen in real life.
Red velvet curtains line the doorway, small tables fill the space in front of the stage where a jazz band performed live. The bar itself was straight out of the 30s, and most of the staff was dressed in swanky formalwear. Emily and I were seated in the VIP section and served the house specialty absinthe cocktail (Emily) and a gourmet seltzer (me). It was pretty crowded and dimly lit, but felt very much like a movie from the ’30s, though most of the guests looked like regular New Yorkers.
Emily talked about her new party Dandy/ette at this very bar. I was excited! I imagined the place filled with queers. It’s perfect for meeting people–a great mingling bar, with great lighting that makes everyone look 20% more interesting than they would in the light of day. She asked me to be a “Lady of the Parlour” for the inaugural event on March 28th.
We left and went to go talk about our party mash-up, Sweet Fox / Rebel Cupcake and I put in the back of my mind to go see Sleep No More when my finances are more abundant*.
A couple of weeks ago I was being taken out on a surprise date and my date (who’s not part of my nightlife adventures and knew nothing about my lady of the parlour gig or that I had ever been to the bar) started driving towards the far West side of Chelsea. I asked if we were going to Chelsea and she said, “Maybe…” And as the car swung towards 27th Street I sort of screamed, “Omigoddess are we going to Sleep No More!?!”
She was shocked that I had guessed so accurately what the next stop on our date was. Her friends had been raving about it for years and by the seventh person who had told her about it she knew she wanted to check it out. Neither of us had ever seen Macbeth so I read aloud from the wikipedia page (where were these extensive cliff’s notes when I was trying to get through college).
We got in line with the other folks for our reservation and were herded into a very dark line past the mandatory coat and bag check. I said making me give up my purse was Femmephobic but they still did it. My bra turned into “nature’s pocket” and I stuffed a credit card in there (the only thing they suggested we were allowed to keep).
We were given our “room keys” (playing cards with numbers on them), and walked in a line through some creepy dark hallways that switched back and forth and were downright scary. Then we were in the Manderley Bar again. They offered us absinthe shots for $10 and as our numbers were called we shuffled towards an elevator in the back. (We were in the bathroom when one of our numbers was called, so we ended up going to the elevator together, and it’s strongly encouraged that you experience the show separately.) They handed us these creepy white masks to put on and up we went. The elevator stopped on a floor, I got out, and unbeknownst to me the elevator operator stuck his hand out preventing my date or anyone else from getting off the elevator with me. So there I was alone, walking through some creepy infirmary that was straight out of American Horror Story last season.
That’s basically the best analogy I can give this theater experience. If you like American Horror Story, you’ll LOVE this stuff. It’s like being on the set!
Also if you like antiques you will also love Sleep No More. There are so many rooms to explore, chock full of delicious antiques. I went through an infirmary, some doctor’s desk, snooped in beds and drawers, I found all this taxidermy. At one point I was in a room full of bath tubs in a row (institutional realness) and then this dude in a white mask like I was wearing hopped through a window and ran to a drawer, picked something up, wrote it down (I totally snooped over his shoulder) and ran off again. The same dude came running into a different room I was snooping in and knocked over a bunch of stuff.
I went “outside” into a giant fake garden maze that was spookily lit and foggy. There were a bunch of mask people staring into this straw hut off to the side but I couldn’t get a good look at what they were seeing. I ran into a woman actor doing a dance on a table. Then I found a staircase and decided to try a different level.
On this level I found a huge replica of the Manderley Bar, only it was abandoned. It was so creepy how much it looked like the bar we had just been in. Dusty bottles behind the bar, everything was dark. I hopped up on stage (natch) and tinkered with the piano. Suddenly an actor came in and dramatically sat at a table and poured himself a shot. A huge group of white masked folks ran in after him. There was a lot of running by the actors (and the people following them).
I had no idea how big the hotel was until I started following an actor from one scene to another and I ended up down in the basement of the hotel. It was like four or five flights down from where we came from. There was an elevator but we weren’t allowed to use it, though I have heard they make accommodations if folks pre-arrange it. I was ready to bail but I wanted to see where the hotel ended up.
We were in the basement and there was some sort of body carrying happening but I couldn’t really tell what happened because there were too many people in my way. I gave up and wandered back upstairs.
I was warned to wear comfortable shoes, so I wore flat boots and a bright dress, which looked sort of hilarious against the backdrop of the play, since everything was so muted and dark.
After exploring another floor with a big outside graveyard, an abandoned baby pram, a baby room with doll parts hanging above it, a creepy girls’ bedroom with a two way mirror showing a disheveled bed in the mirror (though the bed in the room I was in was perfectly made) I was starting to get a little frustrated. I wasn’t really understanding what was going on and was creeped out and a little annoyed that when there were actors they weren’t speaking so I couldn’t tell what was going on unless I could actually see them. But as soon as I thought that, some actor would end up right next to me acting out a scene. The acting out was all done in dance, running and dramatic gestures, and it really was easy to get the gist of it eventually.
I found myself in a parlor wondering if we were allowed to sit on the furniture. I sat down on a velvet sofa and started reading the Book of Common Prayer. Then an actress I had seen rubbing out a blood spot in a big bathtub in what had to be the Macbeth bedroom suddenly appeared above me and told me to get up. I was started and stood up and then she did a big solo performance using my couch and the one parallel.
Eventually I found a room with a bunch of old timey candy in it. I considered briefly not doing this, but I was thinking that if I got bored again I could just eat some candy, so I stuffed some lemon drops, peppermints and rootbeer barrels in my bra for later.
I found my date a couple of times, and the second time I had been feeling a little lonely and squirrely and I realized she was standing right across from me (though she was in all black I could recognize her body language). We silently (oh yeah, you’re not allowed to speak at all) agreed to hang out together for awhile and went exploring together. This was the last hour or so of the show and I think there are more scenes being played out around that time. We saw a couple have a tryst on a pool table, we saw another out damn spot enactment by someone else. There was even nudity!
Eventually we got herded to the downstairs ballroom for the finale. And then we were delivered back to the Manderley Bar where our coats had been moved for us to pick up.
The whole thing was pretty incredible and mysterious. I would recommend it to anyone visiting New York, who is nosy, who likes antiques or loves theater and can get over non-linear storytelling. I still don’t totally understand what happened. But I did enjoy that my date and I got to compare notes afterward in the bar (VIP section, thanks to my magical life). I was glad we spent a big chunk of it apart and then got to see some of it together.
I’m really excited that my Sleep No More experience just gets to keep rolling as THIS THURSDAY is the debut of Dandy/ette, a queer party at the Manderley Bar! You can get $5 tickets at this link!
*And also, P.S. I still have a TON of vintage plus size clothes available at this photo set. If you’re interested email me at queerfatfemme at gmail. Shipping is $5 for first item and free if you buy two.