Those looking to unlock the secret to the success of “Then She Fell,” the Third Rail Projects’ immersive take on Lewis Carroll and his writings now entering its fourth year, might start with the old-fashioned set of keys each member of the audience is given at the start of our adventure through this theatrical Wonderland.
The keys literally open drawers and boxes and cupboards throughout the three-story former school building in Williamsburg meticulously made over to resemble a mental hospital (complete with stern-looking nurses in 19th century habits.) We are able to riffle through (facsimile) letters and postcards and photographs directly connected to Lewis Carroll’s work, his life, and his acquaintances, especially Alice Liddell, the young girl who was his muse for Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass.
The keys also work as a metaphor. Over the course of the two-hour running time of this elusive, dark and delightful show, each individual theatergoer feels put in charge of unlocking the mysteries not just of what’s in front of us, but also of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – pen name, Lewis Carroll.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged*
“Then She Fell,” which has been around since 2012 (originally taking place in the abandoned Greenpoint Hospital), plays to an audience of just 15 people per performance, and even then the mostly silent performers split us up early and often. Each individual theatergoer is ushered into one dark room after another, often alone or with just one or two other audience members. Unlike Sleep No More, there are no free range theatergoers. The often intricately detailed rooms into which each of us is shepherded – which are surely chosen at random, but brook no dissent – add up to an individual theatergoing experience. We encounter familiar characters in sometimes discombobulating environments, often but not always interacting with them. In one room – a chaotic haberdashery! — the Mad Hatter (Elizabeth Carena) made me try on some weird hats; in another, a character silently fed me a grape; in a third, another character played a card trick. There are some stunning set pieces. Two Alices (Marissa Neilson-Pincus and Tara O’Con on the night I saw the show) precisely reflect each other’s gestures facing one another through an elaborate mirror frame that has no mirror. A character I realized much later was the White Rabbit (Carlton Cyrus Ward) sat across from me painting white roses red, and silently gesturing for me to do the same. Near the end, a formally-suited young man (Andrew Broadus) – who I realized later was meant to be Lewis Carroll — dictated a message for me to write to Alice, then placed the message inside a bottle, and took me to a room where he put the bottle in the water that (I suddenly noticed) flooded much of the floor, where it bobbed along with other bottles placed there as if in the sea. (the “pool of tears” from Alice in Wonderland?)
For all the atmosphere of mystery, the show offers light bulb moments of great satisfaction. I had two in quick succession watching through a window as a performer in an adjoining room executed what seemed like a dance of the insane, but nevertheless one with great formality. When she put on a red ruffled collar I suddenly noticed her red dress: “Ah, the Red Queen!” (I confess I was slower to identify the characters than I should have been.) But that wasn’t all: On the wall near the window hung a letter reflecting the historical fact that Alice Liddell’s mother became uncomfortable with a grown man befriending her young daughter, and there was a break between the two families. The thought suddenly occurred to me: Maybe Carroll based the Red Queen not just on the game of chess, but on Alice’s mother.
There is no evidence this is what the creative team wanted me to conclude. There is plenty, however, to feed the historical speculation that Carroll had an unhealthy obsession with his young muse. This is not why “Then She Fell” is restricted to theatergoers 21 and over. All the tasty beverages served in medicinal vials are alcoholic – with the exception of the hot tea in delicate porcelain cups served at the tea party to which some of us are lucky enough to be invited.
*Some of the photographs without captions were taken of the production when it was at the Greenpoint Hospital site.
Then She Fell
“Kingsland Ward at St. Johns” 195 Maujer Street , Williamsburg, Brooklyn
by Third Rail Projects (Artistic Directors: Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, Jennine Willett)
Directed, designed, written and choreographed by
Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett
Created in collaboration with Elizabeth Carena, Alberto Denis, Stacie C. Fields, Rebekah Morin, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O’Con, Zoë Schieber
Original music and sound design by Sean Hagerty, costume design by Karen Young, lighting design by Kryssy Wright,
Cast (vary per performance):Rachel I. Berman, Carly Berrett-Plagianakos, Lia Bonfilio, Andrew Broaddus, Giulia Carotenuto, Lindsey Dietz-Marchant, Caitlin Dutton, Zhauna Franks, Kim Fischer, Kelly Garone, Brighid Greene, Carolyn Hall, Julia Kelly, Madison Krekel, Mary Madsen, Justin Mock, Christina Robson, Kim Savarino, Alex M. Schell, Samuel Swanton, Shelby Terrell, Simon Thomas-Train, Madeline Wilcox
“Ward staff”: NJ Agwuna, Stephanie Armitage, Anna Aschliman, TJ Burleson, Cameron Michael Burns, Brittany Crowell, Jack Cummins, Dana Gal, Taylor Hollister, Kaitlin Marsh, Samara Seligsohn, Elisabeth Svenningsen
Running time: two hours
Tickets: $95 to $150 (depending on the night)