Then She Fell
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
June 18, 2013
Carlton Cyrus Ward in a scene from Then She Fell | Darial Sneed
Then She Fell is an immersive theatrical experience so inventive and flawlessly-executed that it stays with the audience long after leaving the theater. One is asked to drink elixirs and unlock secret compartments, all the while dashing through a madhouse that's been made to resemble a surrealistic dreamscape/nightmare. The set design is breathtaking – infinitely nuanced, shifting dramatically from room to room – and gives one the impression of falling down the proverbial rabbit hole time and time again. Simply put, Then She Fell is a production of seismic proportions, and the company’s decision to limit the show to only 15 audience members at a time makes it feel all the more special.
The scenes one witnesses while charging through rooms and hallways of the Kingsland Ward are inspired by the life and work of Lewis Carroll. In life, the famed author had a questionable relationship with a young girl whose name was (you guessed it) Alice. He wrote Alice in Wonderland as a fantastical world for his young muse to play in, and later, after her family refused to let him see her, Through the Looking Glass as a way to keep her ensnared forever. Appropriately, Then She Fell blends these two worlds so that the audience not only gets a sense of the author's relationship with Alice, but also who might have inspired such classic characters as the head-chopping Red Queen.
Carroll’s infatuation with the girl is apparent from the countless handwritten letters on display. One initially feels as though there’s time to read however many one likes, but the show’s cast emerges from nowhere to perform nonsensical dance sequences. Similar to Sleep No More – which can arguably be called a cousin production to this – there are countless details for the audience to explore and the deeper one goes the greater the reward. However, unlike the former, there is a more involved choreography at work in Then She Fell. Rather than leaving the audience to their own devices, there is always a pick-up and drop-off from scene to scene. One may be walking with a group only to be shuffled into an empty room alone to wait and see what will happen next. Characters engage the audience in conversation and seem to be perplexed by an initial lack of response. It takes a moment to recall the second half of the evening’s primary rule: “There is no speaking, unless spoken to.” Challenges are given, comfort zones are probed. One is cast into a scene and expected to fulfill a given purpose. It is a participatory production from start to finish.
Then She Fell was written, directed, designed, and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, and they have truly done a marvelous job endowing the entire evening with a sense of urgency and the unknown. One of my favorite moments of the show came when I was left alone in a large room. I surveyed the numerous Bibles on display looking for a break in the pattern, then realized the Ward Doctor had entered the room behind me. He withdrew a bottle of prescription medicine from his pocket and poured us both a shot. We drank it. He then slid a locked jewelry box across the table to me. I took out the set of keys I'd been given at the start of the evening only to discover that none of them fit. He smiled and revealed a small key. He flipped over our drinking cups as well as a third, then shuffled them on the table. After I successfully guessed which one held the key he brought it to me, told me to “take my time,” and left.
What is inside of the box? Something that lent a new context to the whole evening, but sorry, no spoiler alerts here.
The cast deserves special mention. Somehow they are able to maintain order within the chaotic landscape of the Kingsland Ward at the same time as performing their scenes with reckless abandon. The are wild, firmly committed, and a joy to watch. On the night of my performance, the cast consisted of Simon Thomas-Train, Carolyn Hall, Rachel I. Berman, Joshua Reaver, Brighid Greene, Jessy Smith, Zoe Schieber, Stacie C. Fields, and Aaron Mattocks. The “Ward Staff” were Debra Beardsley, Kristine Vnook, and TJ Burleson.
Also deserving mention is the production's use of literary work, which is done to masterful effect. For the most part the poems and snippets of prose are from Lewis Carroll, but there are also some that feel as though they might have been devised by the company in a more sinister version of the author's distinctive voice. Whatever the source, it was a joy to see theater, dance, music, and literature compliment one another so fully in a live performance.
Then She Fell is a show (and experience) all it's own, and well worth catching.