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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Through the Looking Glass and Back Again ~ 'Then She Fell'

Small thing about me -- I love all things Alice in Wonderland. I generally always have, but my intent to see every adaptation possible kicked in as part of a search to find one odd version I'd seen a bit of when I was very young. I still haven't found said odd version, but my attempts to see any and all things Alice have ended up rewarding nonetheless.

Not long ago, Oni Hartstein told me that I had to go see Then She Fell. Her exact description of it was 'life-changing.' And I mean, immersive theatre is what Oni does. She's not going to scatter praise that high lightly. It was a bit of a trek for me, since I'm in Virginia and it's at one small venue in New York, but after a bit of reading of my own and some fancy scheduling I decided to make it happen.


Then She Fell is, short version, Alice in Wonderland as immersive theatre. Long version, it is a cross between a play in many acts, modern dance, audience participation, and fantasy RPG. With drinks. At the moment, it's staged across two stories of the back of a church in Brooklyn; in earlier versions, apparently, it was actually on a single floor of an abandoned hospital.

But if I were to sum up the experience quickly and accurately, it's a two hour dream that you will actually remember when it's over.

My intent had been to tell you my entire experience, as Then She Fell is not only very individualized, but also finishing its run soon. But after typing out a 'brief' chat room version to a friend, I'm realising that my hands will not handle the strain. There was too much to see and too much to describe. But I'll hit the points that were, to me, the high points.

The show is 21+, first off, largely because you are given small mixed drinks throughout the course of the show. (There's also an undercurrent of adult subject matter simply by nature of the story, but nothing that actually happens in front of you.) Practically one of the first things they do is hand you a small beaker of sangria once your personal belongings have been locked away in filing cabinets. You're then given a keyring and given your ground rules: don't speak unless spoken to and don't open any closed doors. Other than that, you're free to explore, starting with the waiting room you're in.

As we were told the story of Alice Liddell, we were led off in separate groups. Oni and James and I were led off along with two others, the narrator's voice following us as we were led to a scene of Carroll and a wild-haired Alice dancing increasingly intimately on a staircase. They were interrupted by a second, more sedate Alice, and from there I began to see the threads of the story coming together.

Our group stayed together for a good while, but we were eventually split down to our original three (to notarize a statement for the White Rabbit using rose petals), to just Oni and me (where we saw the Red Queen and made tea), back to our group of five for the tea party, then back to Oni and me for a bedtime story with the White Queen, and then somewhere in a hallway I suddenly found myself alone with the Mad Hatter, interviewing for a job I don't recall applying for. She chucked fabric at me as she asked about my sewing skills, then asked 'Do you take dictation?' and had me write a scathing but love-lorn letter to Mr. Carroll as she fitted James (who was waiting in the next room) for a hat.

We split again as I ate an orange with Alice, and then things got trippy. I mean, I do immersive theatre so little that I go all in when I go, so I let myself completely into the headspace but I still had a toe in 'intrigued observer' territory. Then I was led into a sitting room with a Victrola playing readings of Lewis Carroll poems, while on the wall were hanging poorly-exposed tintypes of Victorian men with animal heads. At this point, I have now been shoved 100% into Weird Dream Logic Land. A nurse solemnly handed me a series of books which, when opened, were shown to hold various vials and pill cases. She mixed something for me in a beaker, which I drank, then handed me back the first book, which was now overflowing with poetry and notes concerning Carroll's break with the Liddell family.

I was led away to paint roses with the rabbit, then taken to a small office where I was met by Carroll. He asked, 'Do you take dictation?' I said yes, and he had me write a letter to Alice for him. In the next room, which looked like a Victorian hallway encroached upon by a river, he put the letter in a bottle and dropped it in the water with dozens of identical bottles. Then I was brought tea and a program and shown out.

This is a very, very brief summing up of what happened. I could try to describe the White Queen and how she made me (and probably everyone else) feel simultaneously cared about and vaguely wary. I could try to describe the motions we had to go through at the tea party (which I nailed on the third go round). I could, as I have been, sit here wondering what I ate, drank, or said that led me to work for the Mad Hatter while Oni was off elsewhere answering uncomfortable romance questions while helping Alice get dressed. The best I can say is, Oni was not wrong about it being life-changing.

As I said before, I crave immersive theatre so much, and lack it so much, that when I'm in, I'm in. When the White Rabbit fled the room after we'd painted roses and dropped his rose in front of me, I legit got annoyed and put his back at his seat (after briefly considering putting them both there). When Lewis Carroll walked in on me going through his papers, I probably would have started apologising if it weren't for the fact that I remembered the 'Don't speak unless you're spoken to' rule.

My friend I described it to said 'Wow, that sounds intense.' And it is. But it's intense art that doesn't make you feel stupid or threatened or drained. It doesn't scare you, it doesn't shove unpleasantness in your face to prove a point. It's weird and surreal and beautiful and I stepped out of it happy. And I think there's something wonderful about the fact that modern performance art can be worthwhile while being beautiful and uplifting and welcoming.

I wish it were feasible for me to go back a second time, to not drink the White Queen's elixir, to sit still at the tea party, to look at something different in the waiting room just to see what happens.

Please, if you get a chance, see Then She Fell before it closes, and see what else Third Rail gets up to after this. These guys are changing some games.

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'Then She Fell' is playing through 30 December 2015 at the Kingsland Ward at St. Johns. Shows are limited to 15 audience members. For reservations, visit ThenSheFell.com

Also check out TheGrandParadise.com for more information on Third Rail's upcoming immersive theatre experience.