In this review: SPOILERS for the experience of seeing Then She Fell. You've been warned.
By Alisha Giampola (writer/performer)
I am a sucker for immersive theatre experiences. I loved Sleep No More. I want all of my future theatre experiences to involve snacks and/or alcoholic beverages and even slightly intense prolonged eye-contact. Perhaps because I know what it feels like to be on the actor's side of the fourth wall, I love shows that totally destroy that wall and ask the audience to step over the crumbled ruins of it and into the action. If Sleep No More offers a voyeuristic haunted house for guests to explore masked, unguided, and at will; Then She Fell is a much more intimate, playful, disorienting experience that you engage in alone but constantly accompanied by members of the cast as well as nurses and orderlies of the institution. Oh, did I mention that you'll be spending the evening in a Victorian mental hospital?
Inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll and his real-life, possibly romantic relationship with the child Alice Liddell, Then She Fell is a theatre piece I have come to, rather typically, several years after it started getting rapturous reviews in the Times. Honestly, it fell under my radar for a while, and then when it popped onto my radar I had to wait to rationalize the ticket price (admittedly, not cheap, but then the experience is WORTH IT), which I'm glad I did because they have a closing date of April 30, 2017. They've extended before, but who knows? So if you want to definitely go see this amazing production, I recommend getting tickets now and seeing it this spring.
Knowing that you're seeing a wildly popular show that only sells 15 tickets a performance is intimidating. For most of it, you are being directly performed to. I spent several minutes sitting silently across from an actor who was a sort of non-literal representation of the White Rabbit, painting a white rose red with a tiny paintbrush, feeling a genuine stress that we wouldn't be done in time. I participated in a mad tea party, smashing my tea cup on the table with the White and Red Queens, Rabbit, and Hatter, and then sipping a deliciously brewed concoction that I had helped choose before being whisked away again for a bedtime story (and being literally tucked into a crisp, white bed). I watched two Alices dance through a mirrored glass, once from inside the Red Queen's luxurious apartment, and once from inside a sparkling fairy burrow, while being fed purple grapes by the White Queen. Later, one of the Alices had me hand her clothing after her bath, all while asking me questions about love. At the end of that scene, we were looking directly into each other's eyes between the bannister of a staircase and she queried if I had lived happily ever after with that first person, that first person I ever loved. When I laughed lightly and said "No," her face darkened abruptly, and she ran up the stairs in a huff, too fast for me to run after.
After the show, my husband Daniel and I tucked ourselves into a nearby bar and over a nightcap excitedly exchanged stories of everything that had happened to us since we'd been split up. We had seen part of the show together. For a few scenes, like when the Red Queen spiraled into insanity with a bottle of pills in a locked ward, we had been the only two audience members watching. But once we were separated, Daniel was led off by the Mad Hatter, a redheaded chanteuse whom we'd watched dance on top of a wardrobe earlier in the evening, and was asked riddles. I was redirected into a room with a gramophone and instructed to open increasingly large books with bottles hidden inside as a Doctor concocted me a cocktail. Then he left me alone with a stack of letters to read and the voice from the gramophone reciting The Walrus and the Carpenter. I barely had time to skim the first letter before the White Rabbit retrieved me to come paint roses with him. Meanwhile, Daniel peeled and ate an orange with one of the Alices while I, somewhere else in the building, was watching the other Alice wrestle with the Red Queen.
Like Sleep No More, this is dance theatre. Most of the scenes have a movement-heavy element driving them. Unlike Sleep No More, the experience feels tailor-made for you and you alone. You aren't eavesdropping on these people, they are inviting you to take part, have a sip, take a bite, answer a question. "Do you take dictation?" the actor playing Lewis Carroll asked me in a room that would have been a regular writer's study, except for the pools of water sinking into the floor in unexpected places. After I wrote his letter, he signed it, placed it in a bottle, and waded into the black water barefoot to send it off with all the others. The Doctor retrieved me and brought me upstairs to play a game of chess with him. I knew immediately that it was the chess game from Through The Looking Glass. He explained the entire sequence of moves to me, guiding me through playing Alice's white pawn, as if he was reading a particularly perplexing case study. At the end, he handed me a cup of tea, retrieved the ring of keys I'd been entrusted with during the performance (and encouraged to use on any lock I found), and suddenly orderlies began bringing the 14 other people of the audience, including Daniel, into the room where I sat. The show was over. I had been the only one, maybe, to play chess with the doctor. I definitely had been the only one to finish my stay in Wonderland with the chess game scene.
As a long time lover of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, I was delighted to recognize so many moments from the stories and from the sad and strange real-life tale of Carroll and Alice. The show is a beautiful and beautifully sympathetic exploration of duality, sanity, reality, and the magic of childhood. At the beginning of the show, just as the audience members are starting to be whisked off by different actors to begin their own personalized journey through the piece, the Doctor offers a definition of liminality. From the Latin limin, meaning "threshold". We get our English word "lintel" from here. Liminality is the quality of ambiguity and disorientation experienced by participants in a ritual, usually magical or spiritual, that occurs midway through- before the participant has been changed completely by the ritual, but are no longer what they were before they began. The show attempts to make adolescent Alices of us all. Not quite big, not quite small, not quite having drunk all of the bottle yet, but definitely having taken a nice sip. Few shows have touched me and haunted me as much as this one has, and I am excited to see more from Third Rail Projects, who developed this and other immersive pieces, as theatre like this becomes more and more prolific and available. I look forward to the day when the idea of seeing a piece of theatre that isn't located in a repurposed warehouse space in Brooklyn is unusual.
The only photo here that I actually took (after the show was over of course) of my "prescription" for the tea I chose during the Mad Tea Party and the stamped program I was given at the end of the show. The two other pictures in this article are press photos. The current company of Then She Fell can be found here.