Disoriented in Wonderland

Only 15 spectators are admitted to each performance of Then She Fell, a site-specific work by the innovative theater company Third Rail Projects, currently playing in an old school building on Maujer Street in Williamsburg. (The show had a previous run in the former Greenpoint Hospital in North Brooklyn.) In order to accommodate such small audiences, Third Rail offers 12 performances a week, with revolving casts drawn from a roster of 30 performers.

Then She Fell is a fast-paced combination of drama, dance and intricate design that explores psychological implications of events in the life of Lewis Carroll and plot points of his literary masterpieces, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, artistic directors of Third Rail, are credited as writers of the piece; but the company’s promotional literature suggests that all 30 Third Rail members have contributed to its creation.

Upon arrival for Then She Fell, audience members, who must be 21 years of age (except at special 18-and-over, alcohol-free performances), enter a waiting room, where a woman in nurse's garb serves fortified wine. The place is supposed to be a 19th-century hospital. Visitors are invited to examine the premises, including the contents of cupboards and shelves. In due course, white-coated men and women arrive to escort playgoers on a two-hour journey through corridors, staircases and chambers (designed by Rachel Kenner, Morris, Pearson, and Willett) which represent medical consulting rooms, the precincts of Oxford University, and places related to the characters' fantasies and dreams.

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a mathematics don at Christ Church College, Oxford, in a time when Oxbridge academics, regardless of their fields of study, were required to be Anglican clergymen. He was a pioneering photographer as well; but now, of course, he's known primarily as author of the Alice books, which supposedly began with a yarn Carroll invented to divert the children of his friend Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, during an excursion on the Thames River in the summer of 1862. One of those children, Alice Liddell, became the model for the Alice of Carroll's fiction and also posed for Carroll and his camera.

The friendship of Carroll and the Liddells (especially, Alice) has long been a matter of speculation among historians and literary critics. In the Third Rail version of things, Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole corresponds to her involvement with the older mathematician/author. The wild things that happen in Wonderland are connected to adolescent libido, obsessive attraction and the generally complicated family dynamics of the Liddell household.     

Like Punchdrunk's wildly popular Sleep No More (still playing in Chelsea), Then She Fell immerses the audience in an exotic, topsy-turvy world where the boundaries between madness and sanity are uncertain. At Sleep No More, one wanders at will through a perplexing mix of Shakespeare's Macbeth and an Alfred Hitchcock aesthetic. Then She Fell doesn't permit playgoers to roam. It's a tour — strictly guided — through the shattered logic and intriguing nonsense of Alice's world, with special attention to possible erotic implications of Carroll's biography. The playgoer is led (and sometimes pushed) toward scenes and tableaux that are, in turn, funny and touching and, now and then, unsettling (though never intimidating).

The action of Then She Fell, like the choreography of abstract ballet, is evocative rather than clearly narrative. The visitor, separated from the companions with whom he or she has arrived, spends some scenes alone and others among a changing coterie of fellow spectators. With arresting lighting design by Kryssy Wright and mesmerizing music by Sean Hagerty, Then She Fell is a dreamlike experience in which the "fourth wall" that ordinarily isolates the actors dissolves, enveloping the playgoer in the drama and creating a very personal Wonderland.   

Then She Fell, written, directed, designed and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett; presented by Third Rail Projects at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns (195 Maujer Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) runs Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and currently scheduled through June 30. Running time: two hours without intermission. Tickets range from $95-$135 (with special offers and group rates available) from www.thenshefell.com, boxoffice@thirdrailprojects.com or 718-374-5196.

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