By Julia Langbein

Promotional poster for The Drowned Man

The Drowned Man, the latest play from Punchdrunk, the theater production company that brought you Sleep No More, is a terrifying production — not because of the plot or the décor, but because it’s the perfect murder waiting to happen.

Like Sleep No More, which has been running in New York since 2011, The Drowned Man is an immersive adventure in which the audience explores the meticulous mise en scène spread across four stories of a warehouse that’s every inch alive with elaborate considerations of mood. Every audience member wears the same white, beaked Venetian mask, removable only in the bar area, and so you become one of a mass of bone-faced crows pecking at the detritus of a sinister, run-down 1950s Hollywood sound studio and its penumbra of sordid trailer parks and motels. Open the door of a baby blue 1954 Ford Edsel, touch a wall of taxidermied jackelope heads, lose yourself in a forest of paper birch trees. The décor is not inherently frightening, because it’s too cunningly stylish. Overall, the set shares the design aesthetic of hipster bars and restaurants, from taxidermy to antique mirrors to rockabilly rags on vintage wooden sideboards. It’s like brunch at Freeman’s in the Lower East Side except without brunch and with murder.


But forget the décor. How is everyone so excited about the décor when you’re basically in a science experiment entitled: “When will someone actually get murdered in this arena of violent anonymity?” I’m down with destroying the fourth wall — in fact, I recently wrote about the Back Room Shakespeare Project, which performs in bars with the opposite effect on the audience:  Observers are pulled into the play in various ways, used as props or called on as witnesses, with their choices on display as much as their faces. “Theater’s not for sleeping,” one of Back Room’s founders said to me, and maybe there’s a similar subtext to Sleep No More: If people are awake at the theater, isn’t that good enough? But what if they're awake and wearing masks that give them anonymous license to do anything? Hasn't anyone noticed the similarities between the ski-masks of urban rioters and the venetian ball-wear of avant-garde theater?

Yes, is the answer: In 2012, the Freakonomics podcast did an episode about just the kind of anxiety I experienced. It compared Sleep No More to social scientist Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, in which “regular” people were given roles as guards and prisoners, and made anonymous (police officers, for example, masked by reflective sunglasses). Relieved of accountability and dropped in an elaborate mise en scène, they began to torture and abuse each other. If you’re a situationist like Zimbardo (as in, you believe in the power of surroundings to influence behavior), then you won’t be surprised to hear that Sleep No More had to begin banning bags of all sizes because the audience repeatedly stole items from the set and pick-pocketing had been reported as well.

Nevermind the fact that it’s dark, that everyone’s in masks and that all recording devices are strictly forbidden, The Drowned Man is the site of the perfect murder because it will be impossible to investigate. Audience members of The Drowned Man are told at the start of the play that they may be selected individually to interact with performers. They are expecting the line between real and fake to be blurred, so when a detective asks them if they saw anything strange, they might begin to make things up: “Yeah, yeah, I saw Billy down by Studio 2 with blood all over his hands. He was real mad.”  The less eager witness might answer honestly: “Yeah, I saw like two murders.” This is the truth because the “plot” of The Drowned Man, which the audience understands mostly from a text handed out before the show, involves lovers’ spats that end in two killings. But because people are instructed at the beginning of the show not to speak a word, and I am a born rule-follower, if a detective asked me if I’d seen anything unusual, I would probably just silently reach out and run my hand over his face.

“Punchdrunk” is an American term that has nothing to do with drink, but with taking punches, like a prizefighter described in a 1912 Wisconsin newspaper: “Punchdrunk through the first round and floundering around like a great helpless calf, his mouth and nose shedding blood in a thick stream.” The idea that a diabolical, long-planning spouse-shanker will see the pre-fab murder scene of The Drowned Man as a bargain at just $60 a ticket might be a bit cartoonish, but I do fear the audience because I felt a frustration, too. Challenged by the darkness, licenced by masks, I felt the powerlessness and passivity that might confuse any of us great, helpless calves enough to throw a punch. 

Julia Langbein has written about art, food and food and art at Gourmet Magazine,, Grub Street, Gilt Taste, and elsewhere. She doesn't troll the internet like she used to because she's in a Ph.D. program in art history, where she specializes in 19th-century French graphic satire and painting, but she sometimes loses a morning to trashy British news, or Mousse Magazine.

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