As the lights come up at the end of Then She Fell, a two-hour theatrical tumble into the world of Alice in Wonderland, I find myself sitting alone in a large room at the head of a long table with a lukewarm cup of tea before me and some scraps of paper clutched in my hand.
I can’t say for sure how they got there, but among the scraps is a folded-up program for the performance, with Thank you hand-written across the front. Third Rail Projects’ production has had its way with me, and I am about to be ejected into the steamy Brooklyn night. In the literary conceit of the evening, I and my 14 fellow audience members (no more than 15 admitted to each performance) have been patients/inmates in the Kingsland Ward, a Victorian madhouse that stands in for Wonderland. We’ve been offered various delicious and alcoholic “Drink Me” potions. We’ve encountered familiar characters and episodes from the book: a hilarious and demented tea party (“We’re all mad here”); an inquisition from Mad Hatter (“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” Correct answer, in case you’ve forgotten: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”)
As the action unfolds, audience members are gently escorted or abruptly hauled around the three-story set in ever-changing combinations. The tea party is a communal affair, but more often we are in small groups or occasionally alone as we witness, and sometimes participate in, surreal and ravishing scenarios.
Without giving too much away, the production is an unnerving sensory encounter that takes the madness of Wonderland out of the realm of whimsy and harmless eccentricity and wraps it in an atmosphere of veiled menace. The disturbing subtext of Then She Fell, the third rail of the production, is the ambiguous relationship between Charles Dodgson (pen name: Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the girl child who inspired his fantastic fiction.
This brings me to the second piece of paper I found in my hand as the lights come up. It takes a moment for me to register what it is: transcribed dialogue from the evening’s most affecting scene. An elderly Dodgson sits on a dock in a flooded room, addressing his long-ago muse, the real Alice Liddell, whom he has long since been forbidden to contact. He relates a dream in which he expresses his desperate yearning for her: “I dreamt a dream that I was with you tonight. I awoke and my lips were numb from saying your name.” Now he passes his time stuffing bottles with notes to Alice and casting them into the water, possibly a pool of his own tears.
In June 1863, something happened between Dodgson and the 11-year-old Liddell that so distressed her mother that she banned Dodgson from the household. According to a letter written by Liddell’s sister Ina, Dodgson’s manner had become “too affectionate” toward Alice.* Yet there is no definitive record of what caused the rift, leaving biographers and artists free to fill in the blanks with their own inventions. Screenwriter Dennis Potter, in the wonderful 1985 film Dreamchild, depicts an aged Liddell reflecting on the emotional consequences of her relationship with Dodgson, which, though intense, remained fondly platonic and essentially benign.
Then She Fell imagines a darker story. The characters do not reside in an insane asylum for nothing. However shrouded Dodgson’s sexuality, the play supposes that his erotic obsession with Alice has inflicted lasting psychological harm. In Dodgson’s plaint in the flooded room, he says, “I have retreated into twos because of you.” But as any diagnostic manual will reveal, it is the victims of childhood sexual abuse, not the abusers, whose minds split in two. In Then She Fell there are indeed two Alices played by two different actresses: Marissa Nielsen-Pincus and Tara O’Con. Dodgson’s own fractured psyche is given its due as well. As Lewis Carroll, he created the wild and lovely enchantments of Wonderland, so brilliantly realized in this production. But the creators of Then She Fell mean for us to remember that Alice Liddell was a real girl who did not live in Wonderland. As much as Charles Dodgson may present a pitiful figure in his hopeless pining after Alice, in this telling he nevertheless has much to answer for.
Third Rail Projects’ staging of Wonderland should not be mistaken for an elaborate version of an amusement park fun house – rather it is immersive theater at its most rigorous and realized. There is not a single frivolous or self-consciously artsy moment among all the dazzling slights of hand and special effects. Though all the actor/dancers are brilliant, the stand-outs are Elizabeth Carena’s frenetic turn as the Mad Hatter and Alberto Denis’ dejected Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson.
Then She Fell was directed, designed, written and choreographed by Third Rail Projects‘ Artistic Directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett. The production runs through October 29 at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns (195 Maujer Street, Brooklyn). Click here for tickets.
*WRITER’S NOTE In the letter, Ina Liddell is describing her conversation with Dodgson biographer Florence Becker Lennon. There have been numerous conjectures over the years trying to explain away this passage: Ina was mistaken or confused or perhaps she lied to conceal that Dodgson was really interested in her. The most likely explanation of course was that she’d simply told the truth. More on the controversy over Charles Dodgson’s reputation can be found in Smithsonian Magazine.