Much like the White Rabbit, I was very late to the party.
Third Rail Projects has been enchanting audiences in Brooklyn since 2012 with its immersive show Then She Fell, a deep dive into the rabbit hole and through the looking-glass. Last week, I finally got to experience this gritty gem.
Set inside the Kingsland Ward at St. John’s (195 Maujer St) in East Williamsburg, the three-story building is made out to be an eerie sanatorium of sorts that probes into the underside of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass — examining the insidious relationship between the author and his muse, the young Alice Liddell. In light of current conversations about #MeToo, the alleged relationship between Charles Dodgson (the man behind the pen name of Carroll) and Alice Liddell leaves little room for speculation.
The two-hour experience is anchored by Lewis Carroll’s text, with clippings of the novel and letters hidden inside drawers, which guests are encouraged to explore with skeleton keys issued at the start. And while many games are at play in Carroll’s works — including a raucous game of croquet and characters of playing cards — it’s the game of chess that is most prevalent in this production.
I sat across a large desk from the institution’s head nurse, a lamp-lit chessboard between us. She moved the pieces forward and diagonally, mapping out the storyline of Alice’s rise in rank all while describing Carroll’s approach to writing each of the characters. The novel’s arc is modeled after a specific game of chess.
Guests of Then She Fell are all pawns on this predetermined checkerboard — swiftly being moved by characters from one room to the other, from the realm of Wonderland to the harrowing domain of a mental institution. The journey is marked with vials of cordials, offerings of tinctures, and — of course — tea.
I was led through rooms full of red roses and pools of water and was then tasked with helping Alice get dressed. Without the the guidance of the other characters, one would surely get lost in the imaginative vignettes.
In my favorite scene, the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit faced off around a long table, barrel-rolling and volleying from corner to corner. Once seated for tea at the table, the Queen of Hearts and the White Queen joined in on a dance of porcelain saucers and clanking silver teapots and flying stirring spoons. I downed my hot tea for fear of being hit with it.
The story is told through beautiful choreography; the characters vie for power and dance between varying states of madness. Each of the guests (only 15 are permitted for each performance) will likely have different experiences throughout the course of the show, but the awe of childlike wonder is omnipresent throughout.
Behind the scenes, the creative team are key players in the game of producing immersive experiences. The co-artistic directors of the show, who also mounted The Grand Paradise in Bushwick in 2016, have changed the cultural landscape of North Brooklyn, having lured theatergoers and culture enthusiasts to brave the L train now for six years.
“The mystery of the show and the fact that you can only experience it by experiencing it is part of the way it is marketed,” said Co-Artistic Director Tom Pearson. “We’ve never done any real paid advertising for Then She Fell — it’s success is due to a combination of the uniqueness and intimacy of the experience, really good press, awards and other accolades, but mainly, word of mouth. Our audiences continue to love the show and recommend it. It’s the best you can hope for. And I think people are intrigued to come to Brooklyn and see something a little off the beaten path. There’s the lure of access and adventure. That it is convenient to a subway stop and a very easy commute from Manhattan is also tremendously helpful.”
Then She Fell has become part of the community in its neighborhood, supporting many local businesses. The roses used at each performance are from a local flower shop, the costumes are washed at a nearby laundromat, and food and drink is purchased from a neighborhood grocer.
“I think the sustainability of the show has helped create a small community of cultural offerings around food and drink with the experience seekers who come for dinner, see the show, and grab a drink after,” said Associate Artistic Director Marissa Nielsen-Pincus. “For instance, we send people over to Tuffet (wine and cheese) bar all the time, and I think they refer people to us. So there’s a sense of community, but one that lives on the outer edge. There’s an appeal to having all of those things at work, the culture of cool and drawl of larger Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Greenpoint, but a sense of still existing in the margin…in the liminal, interstitial, outer rim between neighborhoods.”
Tickets for Then She Fell are $135 for General Admission and $200 for Premium, and currently on sale through August 26. Don’t miss the party.