Why is a raven like a writing desk? Only Elizabeth Carena, as the Mad Hatter, knows, in “Then She Fell"
“Did you pick one yet?” The Mad Hatter pointed to a wall of hats and repeated the question as a command: “Pick one.” I chose a newsboy cap, because it was closest. “Too small,” she said, gesturing. “Try the fedora.” I wasn’t about to argue.
Visitors to “Then She Fell," a theater-less theater event, wear any number of hats during the two-hour tour through a sterile institutional building in Williamsburg, chief among them “voyeur.” It’s here you walk (and climb, and eat) through a three-story manifestation of the melancholy fascination Lewis Carroll had with Alice Liddell, his muse for “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
Third Rail Projects had a sold-out run in 2012 with “Then She Fell,” when it was staged at an abandoned hospital, also in Williamsburg. Critics compared it to “Sleep No More,” the “Macbeth”-themed immersive-theater adventure by the British theater collective Punchdrunk. After delays spurred by Sandy, the company has relocated to the Kingsland Ward at St. Johns.
Performances resumed in early March under the watch of artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett.
Where you might hand a ticket to an usher at a traditional theater, check-in at the Ward is moody and macabre. Guests (attendance is limited to 15) are met at the door and directed to a waiting room beyond a winding hallway lined with warnings about “malarial pests.” Your name is already on a chair, as is a set of keys. Fasten them to your wrist, they may prove useful later on when you’re alone in rooms with locked cabinetry.
You’re alone quite often during the intermission-less excursion, but rarely for more than a minute, since the rotating actors portraying the Alices, the White Rabbit, the Red Queens and the squirrely Hatter lead you at a pace that keeps you engrossed. You may crave more time to absorb the literature hidden throughout, such as the final acrostic poem from Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” the “Wonderland” sequel (that poem, you get to take home).
In one of two dozen rooms, I was instructed by Carroll himself to take dictation for a letter to Alice. So, I wrote. In another -- wonderfully, on the second floor -- there was a wood-carved path over a river ... watch your step; it’s real water. Easily the wildest part of my trip was the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with four actors and three fellow attendees, along with, indeed, tea. The Hatter, unhappy with the cleanliness of her drinking cup, turned it into a game of musical chairs (“I want a clean cup. Move down one!”), complete with table-slamming.
“Then She Fell” is a multi-sensory experience; dirge-like music plays across all floors. Lighting is low, and you’d be wise to wear comfortable shoes. In one room, you may see an interpretive dance by two identically dressed Alices, seated on opposite sides of an imaginary mirror. One Alice left the room and the other directed me to the empty chair. A miming game ensued, and then there were tangerines, which she began peeling, encouraging me to do the same.
Do with that what you will, it was a clear allusion to the relationship a few think Carroll had with Alice. (Side note: all food is vegetarian, and you’re welcome to accept or decline.)
Attention to detail is mind-boggling, from books that adorn desktops, to aged glassware used by nurses you pass mixing powders. No two visitors have the same experience. On an L train heading home, I ran into a fellow attendee who talked of being involved in a raucous poker game with the characters. It was foreign to me, and she was equally surprised when I confessed something like pride at winning a shell game on my first try with one of the Ward nurses.
The ticket price is daunting, but the experience is unlike anything I’ve had. You’ll depart “Then She Fell” sadder than when you walked in, because the narrative is tragic: it’s speculated that Alice’s disapproving mother ultimately asked the pseudonymous Carroll to leave the child alone, though historians have only murky explanations as to why. You’ll also be tired and warmed by wine, and probably inclined to re-visit “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with a more jaundiced eye.
“Then She Fell,” at the Kingsland Ward at St. Johns, 195 Maujer St., Williamsburg. Tickets: $95-$125, available online at thenshefell.com. Call 718-374-5196.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter @RobertKahn