"Don't speak unless you are spoken to and don't walk through any doors," I was strictly warned upon entering Arts@Renaissance to experience Then She Fell, the thrillingly sensual interactive experience currently in performances there. It is not often I would happily abide by such instructions, but this was an exception. I couldn't wait to see what lay behind the doors, but I was willing to obey the rules to find out. (And, truth be told, I was a bit nervous about what was waiting for me down the dark hallways. I didn't want to wander down them alone.)
An immersive, multi-sensory experience staged by Third Rail Project in the outpatient ward of Greenpoint Hospital, Then She Fell has transformed the empty ward into the Kingsland Hospital, where Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland seems to have been institutionalized. (Or has he? It is possible that all of this takes place in his mind?) As visitors are guided throughout the ward, they encounter unique and mesmerizing portrayals of characters and scenes from Caroll's book, as well as being treated to food and drink that heightens the sensory experience of each room or scene. It is a thoroughly disorienting and delightful experience.
Upon arriving at Then She Fell, I walked through an overgrown, lush garden and was then invited into the hospital, where I was offered a mysterious vial of a beverage labeled with my name. I was then led from room to room in the hospital by efficiently impersonal nurses clad in crisp white uniforms. (It is a remarkably orchestrated production, with the actors seamlessly moving 15 different people from one scene to another.) Over the next two hours, I attended a mad tea party, was dictated letters to Lewis Carroll from the Mad Hatter, brushed Alice's hair in her dressing room, was treated to a party by the White Queen and witnessed Alice and Carroll engage in several unusual, to say the least, encounters.
The relationship between Carroll and Alice is apparent in many of the scenes of Then She Fell, which delves into the idea of a sexual relationship between the two. While the relationship between Carroll and Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the titular character in Alice in Wonderland, has never been officially confirmed or denied as being inappropriate, rumors of a sexual attraction haunt its history as well as Then She Fell.
The sexual awakening of a young woman struggling with her identity is no stranger to the stage, but the unique way it is presented in Then She Fell is truly fascinating. After being led into her dressing room by Alice (Tara O'Con) and admiring her dolls, I was invited to brush her hair while she wistfully asked me if I had ever been in love. As she donned a princess' tiara, she sadly informed me that her mother had arranged for her to meet a prince. I later watched the Red Queen (Rebekah Morin) aggressively tie Alice's hair into a knot and forcefully straighten and tidy her clothing as if preparing her for a date; soon after that, I saw two actresses playing Alice (O'Con and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus) mirroring each other as they performed a sensual dance, playing with their hair and caressing their bodies.
Both the Red and the White Queens act as mothers to Alice in Then She Fell, with drastically different styles of mothering. Watching the Red Queen engage in a violent routine of self-abuse and violence before calmly sitting at her vanity table to apply her makeup was nothing short of disturbing, nor was her whispering to me, "Take care of her," before I was led into Alice's room. The White Queen (Zoe Schieber), on the other hand, struggled with Alice's manners and hospitality, all the while protectively hiding a chest filled with handwritten love letters in the back of the room.
The creator of all of these characters, Lewis Carroll's presence is apparent in each room, even if he himself is not. (I frequently saw him, played by Alberto Denis, kneeling in a pew of a church, praying, as I was led throughout the hospital.) The Mad Hatter (Elizabeth Carena), who frantically paces a corner room, scaling the furniture (and knocking it over), obsessively dictates letters to the author who created her. While each room and each character in Then She Fell was enchanting and eerie, I found my encounters with the Mad Hatter especially memorable, with her statement, "I want my hat back," ringing in my ears long after I was led from her room.
After entering the hospital (falling down the rabbit hole, if you will), I was completely immersed in the mysterious world of Then She Fell, due to the excellent performances by the ensemble as well as the set, which has been executed in a remarkably thorough, detailed and mysterious way. Each room has been transformed into its own world, each of which resemble an eerie dream. Old-fashioned furniture and peeling wallpaper adorn some rooms, while others contain only a single hospital bed and handprints on the wall. Mysterious glass bottles containing liquids or pills adorn the shelves, and handwritten medical records, written in calligraphy on wrinkled, yellowed papers, crowd the desks and tables. (I was able to glance at a few, which contained winking references to Alice in Wonderland -- one woman had been hospitalized because she was convinced her baby had transformed into a pig.) And where there are no medical records, there are love letters -- from Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell as well as from other characters. (The background music, which is played in almost every room, does nothing to alleviate the mood.)
Experiencing Then She Fell is disturbing on many levels, not the least of which is witnessing the relationship between Alice and Carroll. The duality of Alice as a child and a young woman struggling to find her place between innocence and experience while she experiences a sexual awakening, is represented by the Red and White Queens as well, in fascinating depictions. Their relationship can be interpreted in different ways, many of which I am sure will be debated after leaving the hospital, but the relationship is there -- and it is clear this Carroll is haunted by it. While Then She Fell is not a haunted house, the memories of my experience there haunted my memory long after I left.
Follow Carey Purcell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/careypurcell