Next to a church and a bodega in Williamsburg there is a small hospital, Kingsland Ward, whose sigil is that of an old-style syringe with a pair of wings. Its doors opened punctually at 7:15 and a member of the medical staff led fifteen audience members to the primary office of the hospital. It also served as the starting point of Then She Fell, a play made by Third Rail Projects that tells the story of Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’s fascination with the actual Alice Liddell in a manner befitting the madness of Carroll’s tale with a medical aesthetic. To prove this, the nurses served an “elixir” to the audience that was spiced liqueur served in a small wine glass covered with a sugar on its brim.
One of the doctors on staff proceeded to sit down in front of an old silver microphone and made a speech about the hospital. It was around this time that a nurse escorted two of the audience members from the office – I and a friend. The nurse led us up to the second floor, where the doctor’s speech echoed from speakers, until she left us in a small white room. It was divided into a small corridor surrounding a walled patient with windows where one could peer into the scene. And that first scene was a startling one. The Red Queen barreled through another door, in full regalia, tossing and turning across the floor. She reached for a pill bottle on the ledge closest to me and pulled at it until it opened violently. The pills flew all over the room, and she fell to ground. She then picked them up from the ground, one by one, straightened out her dress, and left the same way she came in.
The show was filled with many events such as that one, but there was a particular rule the doctor gave us at the beginning – only speak when someone from the cast speaks to you – that created this particular connection between the madness and each member of the audience. One person would be asked by the doctor how they would like their tea while another audience member prepared it from vials of tea leaves and spices. Audience members sat along with the Mad Hatter, White Queen, and White Rabbit – who instead of ears had a cane with a rabbit head that he would hand over to me when it was my turn at the party – and become a part of the continuous seat chances while the cast performed this synchronized ritual of teacup-tossing and plate-flipping.
The show became a personal one for many. Some audience members had probing questions asked by one of the two Alices as she changed her clothes, such as if they were in a relationship, etc. I sat in a tiny room covered wall-to-wall with roses as the Red Queen put a knife to the White Rabbit’s throat. In different moments I took dictation from both the Hatter and Lewis Carroll, scratching the former’s rambles with a fountain pen and the latter’s melancholic message to Alice with a silver pen. Carroll’s melancholy was warranted – he was in a constant struggle between two actresses with the role of Alice.
The two Alices were different in appearance and demeanor. One was demure and had tender moments with Carroll that were stopped by the advances of the other, more aggressive, Alice. That Alice was acrobatic, which was very apparent to me when she pulled me off to a small schoolroom with student desks stacked haphazardly up to the ceiling. She climbed to the top, and then slid down slowly using the strength of her arms as she held desk legs. Even from up high, her blue-eyed gaze was at times both hypnotic and innocent. When she reached the floor, she pulled out two vials containing a yellow liquid from one of the desk drawers. She gave me one—we both shook ours and drank them. It was a mix of honey-sweet liqueur and perhaps champagne, and although I knew I was not actually getting drugged the entire sequence was so mesmerizing I would not be surprised if I had been the case.
It will not surprise anyone that many compare Then She Fell that other avant-garde play, Sleep No More. What made Then She Fell came on as something other than a facsimile, mainly from the close interaction between the audience and the cast. There was not as much exploration but there was a journey – a great one with insane tea parties, haunting songs that echoed the halls and nurses that led one to even more wonders.