Then She Fell Invites Guests Into a Dream-Like Exploration of Nostalgia and Longing
“I dreamt that we were dreaming a dream together you and I, and we were trapped in a house, big as memory…”
I find myself curled up in a twin bed, shoulder-to-shoulder with another audience member. A woman in a simple and elegant white gown sits by our bedside, holding a lantern that fills the room with a soft, warm glow. Her gentle demeanor and comforting smile put me at ease, and she explains that it’s time for a bedtime story. When she instructs me to close my eyes, I comply, allowing myself to sink into the sound of her voice. She proceeds to weave a curious narrative of a girl living in a house as big as memory, whose ability to remember was limited only to events of the future, not the past. As the woman speaks of love and loss, the grief that rises in my chest takes me by surprise. At the conclusion of her story, the woman softly remarks that it’s time for us to rest. She rises from her seat, and takes her time heading to the door. The room feels heavy with melancholy compassion. After a brief pause and a warmhearted smile, she whisks herself out the door, but not before prompting a return to wakefulness.
Then She Fell is a two-hour, immersive theater experience based on the life and writings of Lewis Carroll. It was written, directed, designed, and choreographed by artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett of Third Rail Projects. Set within the walls of Kingsland Ward at St. Johns — a three-floor, century-old, institutional facility in Brooklyn, New York — audience members are guided through a series of vignettes that gradually reveal a larger story. With only fifteen audience members per show, Then She Fell includes no shortage of intimate, one-on-one interactions between actors and participants. The show favors choreography over dialogue as the primary mode of storytelling, so participants can expect some degree of ambiguity when interpreting each scene. The actors use touch sparingly but purposefully, and always gently.
Then She Fell flows like a dream in which audience members step into a liminal push-and-pull between nostalgic longing and reality. The show explores themes like love, loss, regret, and identity. Scenes depicting the real lives of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Carroll’s famous works Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass) dissolve into scenes more reminiscent of the fantastical worlds present in Carroll’s literature, effectively blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Audience members might experience scenes of lighthearted whimsy one moment, and scenes of tense confrontation or thoughtful moments of reflection the next. At the conclusion of the two hours, the audience emerges from the Wonderland-like dreamscape feeling like they’ve been let in on a secret of sorts. The experience not only inspires a greater appreciation for the works of Lewis Carroll, but also forces audiences to wrestle with the mystery and sorrow of the relationship between Carroll and Alice Liddell.
Though Then She Fell continues to prove its ability to captivate and immerse participants in the life and literature of Lewis Carroll, its one weakness is the assumption that audience members possess the context necessary to fully appreciate the show. Without a basic understanding of the characters and premises of Carrolls’ works, otherwise powerful moments have the potential to fall flat. The set design and script both boast an extraordinary number of subtle nods to the works of Lewis Carroll that have the potential to go unnoticed if one doesn’t know to look for them. As participants progress through the experience, they are exposed to letters and documents that fill in some of the gaps, but this show has the most potential for impact on those who already have a basic familiarity with Carroll’s works.
When it comes to immersing audiences into the carefully-crafted world of Kingsland Ward, the acting is where the magic really happens. Though guests don’t have agency to change the narrative, their one-on-one and small group interactions with the talented cast guarantee that no two people will have the exact same experience. The entire cast’s ability to prompt audience members toward their next steps using only subtle glances and understated gestures is a testament to their talent, as it allows participants to linger in the magic of silent moments while still progressing appropriately through the narrative. Taylor Semin’s portrayal of the White Queen is warm and relaxed in a way that convinces participants they’ve known her for ages. In contrast, Jessy Smith’s sharp, authoritative performance as the Red Queen dredges up memories of scoldings from strict childhood authority figures. Joseph Harris flawlessly oscillates between mirth and madness in his role as the Hatter, and Kyle Castillo portrays the White Rabbit with an intense stoicism that still somehow affords the audience glimpses of both love and lament. Alice is portrayed by Shiloh Hodges and Jenna Purcell, who both succeed in delivering emotional and enchanting performances. Their acting in tandem with one another artfully captures the duality between the Alice living in reality and the one tumbling through Wonderland. Edward Rice plays the role of Lewis Carroll in a way that is simultaneously unassuming and deeply evocative of empathy. As he stands with one foot on either side of the looking-glass reaching to reconcile the Alice that is and the Alice that could be, the audience experiences his deep affection for Alice and deep sorry at his loss of her right alongside him.
As the show progresses, audience members make their way through over a dozen different rooms throughout the three-story structure. At the beginning of the experience, each participant is given a set of three antique keys that they can use to explore the room they’re in, if they’re provided with a moment alone. The set design varies widely from room to room. In some instances, participants find themselves in rooms that are clearly meant to depict the clinical setting of Kingsland Ward. Other times, participants are immersed in rooms that more closely resemble what one would expect to find in Wonderland. In one room, dried roses envelope the ceiling and cascade down the walls, while a chopping block looms ominously in the center. In another, a warmly-lit study evolves into a walkway over shallow pools of water. The unpredictability of the set design contributes to the whimsical, dream-like quality of the experience.
Then She Fell’s original music and sound design is the work of Sean Hagerty. The music is oftentimes ambient but used strategically to enhance the mood of each scene. A recurring a cappella rendition of the last two stanzas of Carroll’s poem She’s All My Fancy Painted Him is a hauntingly beautiful addition to the soundtrack of the night. The poem, a parody of Alice Grey by William Mee, is chosen very intentionally to periodically circle audience members back into a place of nostalgic longing.
Throughout the course of the night, audience members will be offered small tastes of various cocktails, teas, or fruits. For this reason, performances are strictly for ages 21 and up, with the exception of select alcohol-free performances that admit adults 18 or older. Audience members have the freedom to decline any food or drink offered them.
Then She Fell is a playful and contemplative excursion through the looking-glass, where audience members get a front-row seat to the liminal space where nostalgia and reality collide. The small audience size allows this show to excel in intimate, one-on-one interactions between participants and actors. This show is a staple of New York City’s immersive theater scene, and a must-see for those willing to linger in spaces of childlike wonder and ambiguity for the sake of a good story.