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Lewis Carroll's ill-fated obsession with the prepubescent Alice

Review: Then She Fell.

Jessy Smith as the White Queen. Photograph: Darial Sneed

Then She Fell
Kingsland Ward, Maujer Street, Brooklyn, NYC, Third Rail Projects

In Sleep No More, Punchdrunk's fantastically successful New York-based piece of immersive, site-specific theatre, the fourth wall is located “on the audience's face” - on the masks audience members wear as they lope, wander, and sometimes sprint through the space. But in Third Rail's Then She Fell, co-director and performer Zach Morris tells me, there is no such safety net. “We do away with the fourth wall entirely”, he says, as we sit down for coffee at the cheerily dilapidated Cake Shop on New York's Ludlow Street. “The scene you and I shared, for example...”

The last time I sat face to face with Zach Morris, the circumstances were somewhat different. He was a doctor at the Kingsland Hospital, the sometime setting of Then She Fell, which traces the story of Lewis Carroll's ill-fated obsession with the prepubescent Alice Liddell alongside fragmentary and laudanum-hazy glimpses of Carroll's Wonderland. I was, apparently, the newest orderly at the hospital, playing a rigged card game in order to win an position as the caretaker of the savagely imperious Red Queen. No stage, no masks, no tricks of lighting, no enforced silence, separated us. I was acutely conscious of my inability to compose my face into an expression resembling neutrality, or even normalcy. Morris, as the doctor, asked me my name; I managed to mispronounce it.

 Such an invitation borders on the dangerous. Anything can happen in these exchanges, Morris tells me – and from his litany of show stories, it's apparent nearly everything has. Audience members, when prompted by a wide-eyed Alice whether or not they have ever been in love, might, for example, dominate the scene by unburdening memories of painful relationships past. Morris recounts the tale of one elderly couple who, upon encountering the Mad Hatter (played with mesmerizing exuberance by Elizabeth Carena) and being told to take down dictation for the Hatter's letter to her absent creator, began to squabble over her choice of words, so that the Hatter herself ended up writing Carroll to her audience member's specifications. (For my own part, I ended up rather a forceful presence: the Hatter demanded to know what type of head I had, for which I had a shamefully paltry reply.)

Yet the structure of Then She Fell is far from free-form. Audience members are separated and ushered into different spaces (commanded, by an imperious looking nurse, not to open any closed doors), led in threes, twos, and finally solo into various, increasingly intimate, scenes with Carroll's novels' most famous denizens, and with the tormented Carroll himself. (Not all audience members are allowed to witness all scenes – as I realized with some disappointment, as I spotted the Hatter's tea party taking place in a room I was not permitted to enter). Each audience member's experience, Morris tells me, is structured: though we each view scenes in different orders, in a non-linear fashion, our own emotional arc is tightly choreographed: as we, scene by scene, are invited to develop our own stories of nostalgia and loss. Thus did I follow one of the two Alices (one, a note in the Hatter's room hints, for each side of the looking glass), into a room with an empty mirror frame, through which I served as her reflection. Thus did I follow the White Rabbit into a closet of of freshly-painted white roses, watching him perform a virtuosic – and unsettlingly close by – dance with a butcher's knife. Thus – ultimately – did I piece together these fragments of the Kingsland Ward's take on Wonderland, and invented for them – in the absence of linear narrative – my own story.

That, hints Morris, is precisely the point.

If Sleep No More invites moments of deeply personal connection between actor and audience member, then Then She Fell, despite its more intimate size – only fifteen audience members are invited in per night – offers something entirely more bewildering: at once dangerous and controlled. No less than Alice, whose journey through Wonderland owes something to the dizzying contradictions of Victorian childhood, I balanced the twin demands of freedom and restriction, of the terror of answering open-ended questions and the fear of breaking established rules. Like all audience members, I was given a set of keys – with which to explore the set's many locked boxes and cabinets – but, like a guilty child, sprang back in fear from one writing-desk when  Lewis Carroll appeared in the doorway. This freedom to – as Morris puts it - “play within the paradigm” is at once frightening and exhilarating: a perfect mirror of Alice's own, albeit largely fractured, development through the piece, as her encounters with the Red and White Queens take her on a circuitous journey towards womanhood.

Yet, if Then She Fell falls short in any area, it is the relative paucity of such development. The “arc” of the piece, as Morris sees it, is that of the audience, rather than that of the characters themselves. The Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White Queen, even Alice herself – do not change, but rather invite us to assume Alice's role, to change through our encounters with them. Indeed, Morris suggests, the very nature of Then She Fell  – in which audience members are left alone to explore rooms, or asked personal questions, to piece together the puzzle of Alice's story – asks audience members to bring far more of themselves, of their own experiences, of their own lost loves or thwarted childhoods, than traditional theatre can allow. Here, in this liminal space where our outside lives and our assumed roles converge, neither wholly the fictitious realm of the Kingsland Ward nor wholly the bleak Williamsburg streets outside it, Third Rail has created something utterly strange, magnificently surreal: undoubtedly Wonderland.