A Nurse greets you at the door you almost didn't find, past the ruined garden, down the stairs, around the corner. She checks your name off a clipboard and tells you to find your place, labeled, at one of the three tables. Waiting for you is a ring of keys, and another Nurse is at hand with your elixir. This is Then She Fell, Third Rail Project's immersive adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, and it is both strange and familiar.
The lobby where we waited was appropriately dark and curious. Our bags left in an open trunk, our coats piled on a single coatrack, and locked boxes scattered throughout the room, begging to be unlocked - one box contains letters from Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell (the real-life inspiration and intended audience for the Alice books), another photographs of the two, another a tiny parlor of dollhouse furniture, complete with minuscule playing cards scattered on the floor and a toppled chess set. Each table has a folder full of hospital admittance forms, already filled out.
Eventually the Doctor stepped up to a microphone to welcome us and tell us the rules of the space - no talking, no opening closed doors, relock anything you happen to unlock with the keys you've been given. He then spoke on liminality while nurses guided audience through various doors, one or two at a time. So the audience was separated and sent on its various journeys, and so the show began.
It's impossible, now, to discuss Then She Fell without mentioning another immersive theatrical experience currently running over in Chelsea, Punchdrunk's popular Sleep No More (discussed elsewhere on my blog as well). And certainly they have formative elements in common - examining and deconstructing a known piece of literature through dance and architecture, transforming a space into a new environment and context for the story, and letting the audience stumble through these moments without a linear narrative to guide them. But I would argue the intentions of these two shows are different. Punchdrunk is in general extremely secretive about their projects (go ahead, you try to navigate their website), wanting to make the maze of their worlds as illusive as possible. They don't want you to figure it out right away, and they don't intend to give you much help in doing so. Then She Fell, on the other hand, guides you from room to room, has you wait in a chair, sometimes, for your next encounter, and really keeps a sense of control and organization, however chaotic it may seem, over the interlocking and interrupting pathways of each audience member's two-hour encounter. It's still not linear, you still have to do your own detective work in the various rooms, and experientially, there are still many elements in common with Sleep No More, but it is its own show.
For one thing, it's less crowded - only 15 guests a night. You are often on your own, or with one or two other people (the most I ever saw in a room together was five, and that was for a party with the White Queen and Alice). You do not have the anonymity of the white masks of Sleep No More, but you should still keep yourself as open to every experience as you would at that show. Because of the deliberate isolation of the audience, many aspects and encounters felt in fact like a series of extended 1:1s. Intense eye contact, conversation, and secrets contributed to the sense that it was I alone who got to witness this moment. Though it was a deception, I felt singled out, again and again (I say deception only because I am certain every audience member had this experience).
|The Mad Hatter in her Workshop|
One final comparison - with a few exceptions, I would say that the dancing and choreography is perhaps not as athletically astonishing as at Sleep No More, but there were many moments yet which made me gasp in surprise or delight, and by virtue of its small audience, it is infinitely more intimate and personal as an overall experience. I kept wishing I could photograph the show. So many stunning tableaux in perfect light, frozen moments of poetry, fluid moments of light and melancholy. (luckily, others have photographed at least some of those moments, though none of the ones I wanted to catch myself - I have sprinkled them throughout this post.
And now, to a full narrative of my evening. I warn you, below you will find nothing but SPOILERS. I am, however, exceedingly proud that I was able to remember everything I saw, and in order. Sleep No More trained me well.
I was first led, along with one other guest, to a room I later named the White Queen's Parlor. We investigated letters, cabinets, drawers, until the White Queen came for us and took us through a dim passage to have us lie down on a bed with our eyes closed: "Time for a bedtime story." She dimmed the lantern and told the tale of a woman who could remember only her future and nothing of her past, how when she met her love, she already knew their whole story, already loved him completely. And as their affair ended, he was a stranger to her.
She next led us to the Mad Hatter's Workshop. The Hatter arrived, another guest (sporting a feathery hat) in tow. She danced and contorted, then lay on a too-small bed and talked to us of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, of what makes hatters mad ("It's the mercury. They put it in the felt.") and of what matters had.
The Hatter led the three of us out and to a small door, through which she sent me, instructing me to sit, taking the other two away. Around the corner of this small room, where I could not see him, the Doctor spoke of how people used to get better here, but now more and more come to stay, as he bounced a small rubber ball against the wall, catching it and throwing it again.
|My transfer slip to the Queen|
He then told me that the Queen had sent to them, asking for a consort and the seven staff members had agreed to a game of poker to see who would go. He cut the fresh deck of cards six times and had me cut the seventh, then narrated my deal of the seven hands of poker, including when I cheated. He caught me at cheating, insisting I abandon my hand, deal cards off the top deck until he stopped me, and then deal my new hand face up. I drew a royal flush in hearts (of course). I actually paused in dealing, I was so surprised. Well played, show. He congratulated me on my win, and escorted me through the halls, where he picked up a clipboard and asked my last name. He gave me my slip, congratulated me again, and sent me through.
This room was just an L-shaped corridor with one-way windows looking in to an empty room. Hung beneath each window was a clipboard with a hospital profile on Lorina Hanna Liddell. Two other guests joined me, and then the Red Queen arrived. She danced, in agony and frustration, taking pills when she could get the bottle open. Finally she calmed and seemed to see us through the mirrors. She opened an adjoining door and said, "You may as well come in." We sat, while she repinned her hair and spoke about - I forget what. She offered us each a small cup of wine, poured from a medicine bottle..
She then led us out, separating us on three different paths. She sat me in a chair against the wall in the lobby and asked me to "wait for her here. Will you look out for her?" I nodded and waited. Two Nurses sat at a desk and worked away.
The door behind me opened. A young girl, whom I have named Short Alice (what? There were two of them and one was taller than the other) asked if she could show me something.
She led me to a tiny closet of a room and asked me to pick my favorite doll. She said it was her favorite, too, because it was a queen.
We sat, as she brushed her hair, and she asked if I had ever been in love. Or if I had told someone I didn't love them when I did. She had me brush the back of her hair as she told me her mother wants her to meet a prince. Something in her tone made my heart break for her.
She then led me out, our hands clasped in a royal procession, and a Nurse escorted me down a different hallway of closed doors and told me to sit and wait for the Doctor to call me. I then saw that one door was open - the Doctor's Office. He danced within, contorting across the desk. A small construct of scissors hung from the ceiling of his room, like a small chandelier, a bit reminiscent of the Tailor's shop in SNM.
I sat for a while, waiting to be called in. Nurses escorted guests to different doors, I heard the White Queen tell guests (presumably re: Red Queen?), "That woman is nothing but a menace." A Nurse came twice to rap three times against a closed door. One time a man emerged (I have since learned this was the White Rabbit, but I had almost no interaction with him) from the door and went off alone.
Eventually the Doctor called me in to his office, and left me there. I examined the various files and drawers, finding notes on each of the patients at the hospital with brief remarks on their conditions - Alice, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Mad Hatter.
|The Red Queen|
A Nurse came for me and led me back to the lobby, where I sat in a chair against the back wall. Short Alice and the Red Queen emerged from their various quarters and had an intense silhouetted tete-a-tete against the door/window entrance to the hospital. When they parted, the Red Queen invited me into her parlor, lush and red, a large settee and a cushioned chair. She had me hold a hand mirror for her at various angles so she could right her ruff, and then Tall Alice entered. The Queen sat her on the settee and tried to groom her, brushing her hair, but Tall Alice was belligerent, slouching and twisting away. They struggled, and then the Queen had her get up and had me sit on the settee while she placed Alice in the chair, where she brushed and pinned her hair. She had me hold the mirror so Alice could see herself, muttering "You will never be Queen." But when she had finished, tying a red ribbon as a choker around Alice's neck, she murmured, "You might yet be a queen after all." The Red Queen turned to a mirror that suddenly became a two way glass - revealing the White Queen in an identical pose in (as I learned later) her own parlor. Both queens left their respective rooms briskly. Tall Alice looked at me sadly. I lowered the hand mirror. Tall Alice approached the two-way mirror as Short Alice approached it from the other side. They performed a sort-of mirror dance, not quite mimicking each other, nor always matching each other.
Eventually the dance ended, the light on the two-way mirror faded, and we could no longer see into the other room.
I've lost a bit of the sequence, but I think the next thing I recall is being returned to the Mad Hatter's Workshop. At first I was alone. Then I heard the Hatter speaking to another guest. I approached. She was asking what skills the guest had, sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, etc, and was appalled to learn she had none. Still, she loaded her arms with bolts of cloth, then noticed me and asked if I was there for a hat. I said yes, and she asked if I had picked one out yet. When I said no, she sent me to pick one. I chose a fedora, which she said looked to be too small to fit (she was correct). She asked what sort of a head I had. I ... really had no clue what to answer (I think I said "my head"). She remarked it was good I knew it was my head, as it was attached to my shoulders. Then she sent me to sit on a trunk while she dictated a letter to her new assistant (the other guest). The letter was to Lewis Carroll, and through the various drafts seemed to be expressing sympathy that the Red Queen, Alice's mother, had forbid him from seeing her again. However, she kept fearing her tone was too neurotic, and ended up dictating the note to just be: "Tea?" When she got the signature, she said, "Your faithful servant ..." then turned to me and declared, "You know, he never gave me a name!" She found a fedora to fit me, attached a feather, congratulated her assistant on her penmanship before crumpling the letter and throwing it in a pile of already crumpled paper in an adjoining room, and then placed a lacy wide-brimmed hat on her, and led us both to Alice's quarters - she had the other guest stand behind an armchair facing an empty picture frame (got up to look like a mirror, across a small table with a lamp), and took me to to the other armchair to stand behind. She had me admire my hat in the "mirror," then took it off, declaring I could pick it up on Monday. She took the other hat away, and left us alone.
Soon the two Alices found us, and performed another mirror dance which was truly stunning. Originally sitting in the chairs, they eventually had us sit there instead as they climbed the table and moved through and around the mirror. When they finally parted, Short Alice took the other guest off, and Tall Alice took me by the hand.
Tall Alice led me away to a cold tiled room. This was the first I saw the dancing get truly athletic. Alice scaled the window, then climbed over and around a ledge. I followed her into the larger section of the room, where she was closing the windows by climbing them, hanging from the pipes. She then approached a bucket with a cloth inside. She wrung out the cloth, then reached for me, cleaning my hands in a ritualized manner. She asked if I would wait with her. I nodded, and we went to crouch in the corner. Four other guests entered and looked at us as I cleaned her hands in the same ritual she had used on me.
|Alice and Lewis Carroll|
Then, most alarmingly, we realized someone was watching through the window, outside the building (this was the bald man in black who spent most of the time I saw him, praying in a pew. Looking at a list of characters, I think he must have been Lewis Carroll.) Tall Alice went to the window, opening it and letting him in. They had an intense, wall-climbing encounter. Then Lewis Carroll led us all away, and into the White Queen's parlor. Here we poked around for a bit, until the lights dimmed and we saw, through the two-way mirror, into the Red Queen's parlor, where she was dancing with/tormenting a man with a white cane (the White Rabbit).
When the light in the Red Queen's parlor faded, the White Queen joined us. Delighted, she had three of us sit on a bench at the long table, and the other two in chairs against the wall. She fed us ... some sort of hors d'oeuvres? It had goat cheese in it, that's all I can be certain of. Then Short Alice joined us. The White Queen instructed her, cheerfully, on how to host the party, fed her (and some of us) grapes, and gave each of us a stopper vial with some kind of clear alcohol in it. Then the light dimmed and we could see into the Red Queen's parlor again. This was the scene I had witnessed before, but from the other side. The Queens left us, and the Alices performed their mirror dance. As our lights came back, Short Alice led us all into the Red Queen's parlor.
Where previously I had felt pity for Short Alice, now I found myself disliking her, as she strolled the parlor, setting props to rights, but smirking with a kind of malicious ownership. She slipped out through one of the mirror doors, which revealed itself to be another two-way once the light hit it. Through the windows we saw her approach the praying Lewis Carroll, tormenting him, seducing him, and continually pushing him away, away. They disappeared around a corner for two minutes, unwitnessed, then reemerged. Eventually Alice, after abandoning Lewis Carroll, approached the mirror door and had a moment of introspection, though I hesitate to credit her with regret for her actions.
The light came back up in the White Queen's parlor, where the White Queen met with the White Rabbit and danced briefly, as we witnessed through the two-way mirror. When she left, the White Rabbit beckoned us in. He gave his cane to one guest to hold, then plucked three petals from a white rose, handing them to three guests, whom he gestured to exit into the lobby door. He did not allow the other guest or myself (who had not received petals) to exit. Instead, he handed me a letter.
As soon as he left, the White Queen entered through another door and held her hand out for the letter. She brought us over to the long table, held the letter where we could read it, but then read it aloud. Most chillingly, when she got to one particular passage, a ghostly voice in the music playing began singing the words she read. She opened a box on the wall, intending to put the letter away, but many more spilled out. She handed one to me and one to the other guest, taking a third to read herself. Mine took a while to read, as the handwriting was sometimes illegible. It was signed by William. As we finished, she gathered up the letters again and stuffed them in the box, latching it shut. She told the other guest to wait where he was, and led me again down the dark passageway to the bed. She told me to sit, offered me a letter and a small cup of tea, said "this letter is for you," and left me with the lantern, by which I read the letter.
Eventually a Nurse came and found me, gave me a second letter (the one that turned out to contain the cast/crew info for Then She Fell, as well as an Acrostic Poem by Lewis Carroll, and left the curtains open for me to find my way again to the lobby as the evening concluded.
I left in a sort of haze, and spent my train ride home furiously typing everything that had happened into my phone, lest I forget a moment of it.
One final note: In his review in the New York Times, Ben Brantley mentioned these four scenes:
"Among the set pieces: a truly mad tea party that noisily redefines and explodes table etiquette (led of course by the Mad Hatter, embodied by an elegant and antic Elizabeth Carena); several visions of two Alices discovering each other on opposite sides of a mirror in subliminally sensual reveries; your being made to paint a white rose by the White Rabbit (Mr. Pearson, without the literal-minded burden of bunny ears); and a forlorn session, in a flooded room, on a derelict dock with a bereft, barefoot man (Alberto Denis)."
With the exception of the Alice Mirror scenes, I witnessed none of these. Dangit. A new obsession to plague me. And now to tumblr, where I shall track down what everyone else has to say about it.