Reviews Off-Broadway Published 12 August 2013

Then She Fell

The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns ⋄ Began 9th March 2013

Immersed in the looking-glass.

Richard Patterson

It’s impossible to write about Then She Fell without comparing the piece to Sleep No More, UK theatre troupe Punchdrunk’s vast, immersive Macbeth/Rebecca mashup that’s already in its third year of performances in a converted Chelsea space with more than ninety rooms to explore.

Sleep No More is a self-guided choose-your-own-adventure type of experience; there are no instructions on what to see and very few about how you ‘play’ (no talking, wear a mask at all times). Then She Fell, a notably more intimate piece, is similarly immersive but decidedly less dependent on individual audience members’ subconscious directives. There are no masks, and theatergoers are led from place to place without much choice in the matter.

Then She Fell, presented at the Kingsland Ward at St. Johns in Brooklyn, is inspired by the writings of Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) as well as the life of Carroll himself (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and the real-life Alice, Alice Liddell, a young acquaintance of Carroll’s through social calls to the Liddell family.

There are only fifteen audience members per performance at Then She Fell (compared with hundreds at Sleep No More); as patrons arrive, they’re greeted by hospital staff, who brief the audience as to what they’re about to experience. Each audience member gets a set of keys to open drawers and cabinets and rustle through props. There is to be no talking. What we’re about to experience draws its themes from the concept of “liminality,” or the ambiguous threshold between states, we’re told. Then we’re given a wine-based cocktail to sip and, one by one or in small groups, are plucked away by attendants to begin our evening.

I was first led, along with one other audience member, to a hospital room with a neatly-made bed, on which I was instructed to lay, eyes closed, as a nurse told a bedtime story about a girl who remembers not backward but forward. From the start it’s clear that Then She Fell will make use of the same nonsensical whimsy as the Alice books, blurring the lines between reality and unreality. Once I opened my eyes, the Mad Hatter had entered the room and begun nattering on about how “not all hatters are mad” and “not all matters are had.”

Soon thereafter, I was whisked away to a hallway, where a supervisory hospital employee instructed me as to how to execute a poker-based card trick. After writing me an admittance slip, he bade me forth to see the Red Queen, a pill-popping madwoman.

It was at this point that I had my first tangible glimpse of the dance-based elements of Then She Fell. The choreography has been devised by the creators along with members of the cast, but those audience members who have already been to see Sleep No More will likely sense a sort of “been there, done that” quality about the dance segments, which operate in the same hazy space between plot and emotion that they do in that other show, for better or worse.

These dance segments reappear throughout the show, to varying degrees of effectiveness. I also witnessed two separate eerie, haunting mirror dances between duel Alices, one of which took place in the basement of the three-story building — each Alice spinning wildly before stopping and syncing and then spinning again. In another, less successful dance segment, Alice and Carroll, together in a small chapel space, move seductively between pews and into a secret cubby visible to the audience. The scores for the dances, composed by Sean Hagerty, are similarly underdeveloped, consisting mainly of tedious harmonica and accordion sounds that grate more so than they excite.

To me, the least effective element of the piece is that it’s overly reliant on the possibly pedophilic relationship between Carroll and Alice — an assertion that’s never really been adequately proven, and which is based mainly on Carroll’s penchant for taking vaguely erotic photos of young girls, Alice included, which may or may not have been understood simply in a different context than how the same activities would be today.

It’s not that this subject isn’t interesting; who doesn’t want to get the real scoop on one of the most well-known children’s authors in the history of literature? It’s just that the matter is introduced and treated only on a surface level. Alice and Carroll dance together seductively, sometimes behind glass, but whatever might lie beneath the surface between author and subject is left undiscussed much to the detriment of the piece as a whole.

The show’s other primary weakness is its somewhat deceptive invitations. Audience members are handed a set of keys with which to unlock things, but I rarely found the time — or the keyholes — with which to do so. By the time I’d found something to unlock and pried open the doors during what seemed to be a free moment, happening upon a few trinkets and a wad of cotton balls, I’d missed another seemingly more important scene that had begun across the room. Throughout most of the rest of my Then She Fell experience, I was led from room to room with barely a moment to rest in any space without a performer and really dig through its hidden elements. At one point, to my relief, I was sat down in a comfy armchair in a room full of odd framed animal prints with a strawberry cocktail and a pile of letters, but by the time I’d read the cover sheet I was whisked away once again to a new room.

Once the expectation of some mind-blowing key-driven discovery had faded away, it became clear that the most effective sections of Then She Fell are the most interactive. The memories of the experience that I cherish most are my time with the Mad Hatter in his hat shop, where I was led to choose a whimsical hat (in my case a sombrero) and watch as another audience member dictated a note. In another room, the mysterious White Rabbit and I sat painting white roses red (just as the guards in the first Alice book do). In another, I was asked to hastily dictate a letter from Carroll to Alice, the note subsequently bottled up and cast off into a shallow pool by the writer’s easy chair.

There are interesting experiences to be had at Then She Fell to be sure, but to me they were about as numerous as its disappointments. While some of the sets are intricately designed others feel a measure away from being completely realized (to be sure, the budget here is more restrained than that of Sleep No More, understandably so). In addition to the disappointment of the mostly useless keys, I also found most of the drinks distributed throughout to be more bitter than pleasant and the brief appearance of food (grapes and some sort of strange crostini) to be a bit off.

While it’s laudable that Then She Fell attempts to guide audiences through somewhat more of a linear experience than that of Sleep No More and does so on a much more intimate scale — the evening is filled with one-on-ones and small group experiences, whereas in Sleep No More there’s no guarantee of ever being alone with a performer — the story here simply isn’t multilayered enough to merit how immersive the space is.

Particularly as my evening at Then She Fell drew to a close, my internal comparisons to Sleep No More seemed to become more apt. Though the latter features a culminating scene that all theatergoers experience before leaving for the evening, providing a sort of unifying experience for all involved, my experience at Then She Fell seemed to just peter out. After a scene, I’d been led to a room by the White Rabbit, sat down with a cup of tea, and left to read a rather anticlimactic acrostic poem. Then a guide led us all back to the entry chamber we’d been inducted in and were told we could go.

Off into the night air I went, and there were plenty of experiences to ponder. Unfortunately, however, the show hadn’t dug its way into my psyche the way it seemed to have wanted to. Frustration reigned instead of discovery; sadly, I’d fallen, but despite my anticipation for this much-lauded show, I’d fallen out of love instead of in.


Richard Patterson

A graduate of New York University with a degree in Dramatic Literature, Richard was deputy theatre editor at from 2008-2011 and New York Editor of Exeunt from 2011-2016. He is excited to continue on as a contributor. With a penchant for Sondheim, the Bard, and Beckett, as well as for new writing, theatergoing highlights include Fiona Shaw's Winnie in "Happy Days," Derek Jacobi's Lear, Jonathan Pryce in "The Caretaker," and Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello at the Donmar. Richard's criticism has been published in The Sondheim Review.

Then She Fell Show Info

Directed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett in collaboration with the Company

Written by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett in collaboration with the Company

Cast includes Rachel I. Berman, Carly Berrett, Lia Bonfilio, Elizabeth Carena, Alberto Denis, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, Stacie C. Fields, Brighid Greene, Carolyn Hall, Julia Kelly, Roxanne Kidd, Madison Krekel, Mary Madsen, Chris Masters, Josh Matthews, Aaron Mattocks, Rebekah Morin, Zach Morris, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O’Con, Tom Pearson, Joshua Reaver, Edward Rice, Zoë Schieber, Jessy Smith, Simon Thomas-Train, Niko Tsocanos, Carlton Cyrus Ward, Jennine Willett

Original Music Sean Hagerty


Running Time 2 hrs (with no intermission)



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