It’s been over a month since I’ve experienced Then She Fell (and posted an interview with director Zach Morris), yet many of its moments are still etched vividly in my mind. This is impressive considering how much has
transpired since spending those two hours enthralled inside the show’s original location at an abandoned hospital in Brooklyn. With the show moving and continuing on a new location at South Street Seaport (latest on that here), I’ve been freshly motivated to finally write up my experience with the show.
Because Then She Fell (TSF) is limited to 15 audience members only, many of you probably have not yet seen it, even after a sold-out run of six weeks. Given that, I’ll keep the spoilers light here. However, I will be giving up some details and thematic elements, so if you wish to go into the experience completely spoiler-free, you may want to bookmark this for later. I also know that many of you found this because I have written a good deal about Sleep No More, but I would first like to confront TSF on its own terms and save the comparisons for another post over in Tumblr. If you crave more details, Carey Purcell also posted a nice writeup of her experience.
TSF constructs a personal journey through the life and works of Lewis Carroll. It intentionally blurs the lines between his life and work, imagination and experience, and results in something more profound than either. It is evident that the show’s creators took some deep dives into their source material and surfaced with insightful nuggets from Carroll’s world. (It may help to have a cursory knowledge of Carroll and the characters in Through The Looking-Glass to enjoy TSF, but advanced research is not strictly required to enjoy the show.) Most characters I encountered occupied an intriguing space between fiction and their non-fictional analogs.
It’s fitting that the show begins with a tiny lecture on the word “liminality,” preparing you for the the ways the performance will be toying with your perception. You are taken between the concrete, the uncanny, and points in between with little warning. I saw the red queen transform into Alice’s mother and then back again, I saw the Mad Hatter go from quizzically philosophical to factually informative to seriously goofy. I was both a voyeur and receiver of the gaze. I was in turns a passive observer and a challenged game player. Passing many times through a hospital ward had me questioning the sanity of my visions.
The resulting experience was not purely that of a surreal dream so much as a journey through Carroll’s waking thoughts, some whimsical, some obsessive, some tormented, others merely clever. At times, the characters would perform passages from Carroll’s work, at other times they would pontificate upon it, and other times still they would bring to life the drama and emotion of a person known to Carroll. The author’s life is a rich topic for this sort of play because there is so much about Carroll that has been mistaken, obscured, and mythologized that entering his world ultimately leads to a discussion about what is even knowable. Carrol’s relationship with Alice Liddell, especially, has only grown more mysterious with time. What is history, fiction, hearsay, fantasy, truth in this context? TSF’s creators are reveling in the spaces inbetween and manage to keep us in a state of vacillation for a full two hours.
Your journey involves being led between the 20-some-odd rooms and passageways which do not sprawl so much as fit together like tight puzzle pieces. Not everyone sees the same set of scenes (I would guess it would take two or three visits to see them all) and nobody sees them in the same order. Some scenes are viewed with two, three, or four other guests and everyone is guaranteed to experience at least a few scenes alone with a performer. My wife and I started the show together with three others and were split up and reunited several times. She had two private interactions with Carroll himself, while I only saw him at a distance. I, on the other hand, had some private moments with both Alice characters (yes, there were two Alices) that my wife did not experience. One special moment for me was hearing an existential monologue from a character hidden from view who then revealed herself to be the stunning Hatter character. I was probably the only person that night who first met her in that dramatic way. The timing was so perfect that I cannot imagine the show otherwise, and yet it is unlikely to occur for me that way again. This makes me very curious to experience the show a second time.
Movement and dance provided the backbone to the action, but the work also engaged the rest of the senses. Dialogue (sometimes with me); food and drink; sound and music; sets ranging from simple to richly detailed; group dynamics and one-on-one performances; optical illusions; and a high degree of physical interaction all played a role. Strangely missing was any specific use of smell like burning incense–a sure way to burrow deep into our brains and yank our minds back to the show when, weeks later, we catch whiff of the scent again. The only reason for this that I could discern is that it may have conflicted with the aromas of the food and drink.
The show was most engaging at the moments when I was required to perform simple tasks. Hold this, carry that, open this, drink that, wear this, place these flower petals into this small box contraption and turn the crank, etc. And, of course, when given food and drink (both savory and sweet) it was difficult to not be pulled into the moment. I recall a savory tart, an herbal cocktail, a chocolate truffle, a wine-based concoction, and, of course, hot tea several times over.
While I did not view the show as being a game as such, a good deal of gameification must have been employed in the making of it. Planning out the many tracks so that each person has a full, balanced, and continuous experience must have been a true challenge. From my view, everything flowed smoothly and seamlessly. There were a couple moments of downtime here and there but the sets and visible action made even those moments worthwhile.
I would describe the set design as both sparing and lavish. Each room had just enough detail to convey a sense of place and a mood without appearing cluttered. There was the occasional drawer or cabinet to explore. Each guest was given a ring of keys and told to keep them throughout their journey. Sometimes they proved useful to reveal details of the set, sometimes they were an amusing red herring.
When the performers would dance and fling themselves around such small rooms, I sometimes felt an element of danger–both from the possibility of being hit by a stray elbow and from the sense that I was intruding into someone’s private space. When alone in a small room with a performer, I felt a rare sense of focus and presence. Intimacy was conjured by keeping things small, close, real.
The overall tone was more upbeat than I expected. Maybe it was the set of expectations I brought to it, combined with the fact that I came from the ScareHouse dress rehearsals just a few days earlier. The ScareHouse is about as dark and disturbing as things get, so my internal darkness tolerance mechanism was calibrated for something much worse. However, my wife, who has a much lower threshold for creepiness, enjoyed herself without much stress. There was as much charm, whimsy, and humor as there was darkness.
This was also true of the music, which was a folksy mix of accordion, guitar, banjo, harmonica, clarinet, violin, bass, and voice. The recording was produced to be very direct, rather than thickened with layers of ambience and reverb, which added to the close and intimate feel of the show. One haunting passage with synth and delayed percussion stands out as if someone is tapping at a door down a long hallway. The action throughout the show was unified and synced to the same soundtrack, so each passage provides the backdrop to a number of simultaneous scenes. One very nice touch was a song with lyrics which, I’m told, were sung live by one of the performers. As I heard them sung, I saw the words being written down by another performer into a
All in all, the mood was way less terrifying than any experience set in an abandoned hospital deserves to be. I get the sense that Third Rail’s DNA does not include a dark spiral of terror. As a group, they strike me as upbeat, cheery, supportive folks who end up keeping things on the lighter side even as they dive into darker material. Carroll’s tale of desire and obsession could easily have lead into some very dark places, but as Third Rail allows themselves to be obsessed with their work, they end up channelling their energies to positive ends. During your journey through TSF, your are shown an appreciation for artistic and personal obsession that is not betrayed by angst or cynicism. You may be haunted, but not horrified. At the end of the day, that may be the show’s greatest gift.