The older woman interrupted, "So we might be separated?" She asked anxiously, clutching her husband's arm.
"Yes," the greeter confirmed. "You will be separated."
After a quick restroom stop, we went through the curtains and found a sizable room set up like a doctor's office. An orderly was pouring drinks, and we were each handed a drink and a knotted loop of thick green string with four keys hanging from it. "Feel free to explore," the orderly said, "but do not open any closed doors. and please put back anything you pick up."
We joined the other audience members in looking around the room. There were filing cabinets, glass displays, and several folders set out with worn paperwork inside - photographs of Alice Liddell, including the ones famously taken by Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), and patient records documenting diagnoses such as "bad blood" and "jabberwocky bite." There were also several boxes with padlocks around the room, which my keys opened up and which also contained photographs and scraps of poems.
Shortly after 7:30 a woman dressed as a doctor in a white lab-coat and glasses entered purposefully. She stood behind the desk and instructed us to take our seats. Jason and I joined the other audience members in mismatched chairs that lined the perimeter of the room. There were 15 audience members total - a restriction that made the tickets to the show both difficult to obtain and incredibly enticing.
The doctor sat and pulled a thick, gray desk microphone, the kind that would be used over a P.A. system to her. She flipped a switch, and began speaking, her voice carried through loudspeakers in the corners of the ceiling and over the soft, old fashioned music that had been playing since we entered, and which continued throughout the building and the evening.
The doctor first laid out the rules for the evening yet again. Alcohol, tea, food. We were free to explore, but do not open closed doors and put back what you pick up. Do not talk unless spoken to. Welcome to Kingsland Ward hospital.
She then began a monologue about liminality - thresholds, the middle grounds within rituals - and about falling. It was a factual lecture, full of definitions and Latin word origins. As she spoke, the orderlies began approaching people and, silently, leading them away through various doors. A young woman silently held her hand out over laps, person by person, counting off five people, then beckoned them to follow her. I was number five, so with a shared glance and smile with Jason, I left him to his own adventures.
The young woman led us down the stairs near the entrance as the doctor's voice and the music continued through the speakers in each room. She opened a pair of dark wooden doors at the bottom of the stairs and ushered us inside, closing the doors behind her. We were standing between two sets of doors behind a dark waist-high wooden fence that separated us from a room built for private worship. There was a prie-dieu, an altar, and two confessionals that flanked a large mirror. In front of the barrier was a wooden bench, and laying on that bench was Alice.
With long dark hair, a white blouse, a full blue skirt, and a wide white sash, Alice was easily recognizable. She lay on her stomach in front of us, her bare feet crossed in the air. She had a glass bottle filled with scraps of paper, and she was meticulously piecing together a note by smoothing out each scrap and fitting them together.
We watched her work for a few minutes before she sat up and acknowledged each of us with a slow, pensive look. Then, still without saying a word, she quickly stood up and crossed to the doors we had entered from. She peered through the crack between them, then flung them open to reveal a man dressed in a black suit sitting on the staircase. With the doorway as the proscenium arch, we watched Alice and Lewis Carroll dance a pas de deux on the staircase that was absolutely lovely. Their dance wove under and around the handrail, up and down the stairs, and they balanced precariously between the stairs and the hallway that ran alongside the staircase, using the chair rail for footing. It was a dance about love, about desire and wanting and restraint. It did not resolve, but Lewis Carroll left Alice on the stairs and closed the doors, cutting off our viewing of their scene. As he did so, another nurse opened the doors opposite and beckoned for us to follow her into another room.
That was the opening of the show that motivated our trip. I'm delighted with and fascinated by the immersive theater movement, and when Third Rail Projects extended the run of their acclaimed exploration of Lewis Carrol's creations as well as his real-life relationship with Alice Liddell, Jason and I jumped at the chance to get tickets.
Here are a couple of my favorite moments:
The White Queen, a kind-looking and very pretty blond young woman, kept me and one other girl about my age behind while our original group of 5 moved on. She sat us at a table, then unlatched a wooden box mounted on the wall above us. A cascade of letters fell onto the table, and at her encouragement we began sifting through and reading them. As we did the perpetual music changed from instrumental to a song sung by a young man. The White Queen settled on one letter in particular, one from an envelop with the stamp of the Red Queen on it, and she began to read it out loud. "My beloved," she read. "I saw you with her again." She continued reading as she stood and indicated for us to follow her.
She read the letter out loud as she led us up the stairs to the second floor. The letter, a love letter wrought with jealousy and longing, eventually synchronized with the words of the song playing above us, and by the time she led us into a small bedroom, the final words of the letter perfectly matched the plaintive lyrics. The song ended, the letter ended, and the White Queen handed it to the other audience member as she shut the door.
The room was a small one - about the size of my single dorm room at the U. A set of closets and drawers lines one wall, a small desk sat under a window, a narrow metal-framed bed was pushed into the corner along the other wall, with a coat stand at its foot. The White Queen pushed herself away from the door and indicated the bed. "Time for a bedtime story!" she declared.
The other audience member and I looked at each other while the White Queen looked at us expectantly. I sat on the bed, then swung my legs up and laid down on my side, my back to the wall. The other woman laid down on her back next to me. The White Queen turned off the lights so the room was only lit by the glow of the streetlights through the heavy curtain and sat on the stool next to us.
"Close your eyes," she said. Hesitantly, we did. "Once upon a time," she began, "there was a girl who lived in a house as big as memory." She told us a story that was simple and sad, about a girl who lived backwards and who fell in love in reverse - at the beginning of the relationship, she knew everything about the boy, but by the end she had forgotten all. I peeked a few times at the beginning, unable to keep my eyes closed as I lay there on a strange bed in a strange room next to a stranger; but I found myself easily slipping into the comfort of listening to a new story from a soothing voice in a dark, quiet room.
The story ended, and I lay there with my eyes closed listening to my neighbor's breathing and matching my own breaths to hers. Then the White Queen snapped on the lights, "Time to wake up, Doormouse!" and disappeared through the door, closing it behind her.
Later, the white rabbit left me in a room with a cabinet of curiosities and a writing desk. I had just discovered a box of quill pens in the back of a drawer when Lew Carroll entered. He looked at me, I looked back at him. "Do you take dictation?" he asked, indicating the quill in my hand.
"I can," I said.
He shut the door, crossed to the desk, and pulled out the chair. Upon his gesture I sat, and he handed me a piece of thick cream-colored stationary and a silver pen from the stand on the desk. Then he moved away from the desk, standing with his back to me, hands clasped behind him. "My darling," he began. As he spoke, I transcribed and he paced between me and the door. Halfway through he paused and held out his hand for the letter. I handed it to him and he read it, then nodded curtly at me and said, "Follow me."
He led me around a corner and down a short hallway. As we walked, the floor turned from worn carpet to wood to planks laid over a pool over water. I followed Lewis Carroll around corners on this boardwalk into another small room with a large purple easy-chair in one corner on the boardwalk, and another across from it in the water. He indicated that I should sit in the former, then handed me back the letter. It was now clipped to a board, reverse-side up to give me a blank page to continue on. He resumed his dictation and I continued writing. This time as he spoke, he removed his shoes and socks, then rolled up his pant legs. As he finished the letter, he took it from me once more, and again read it over as he stepped into the water and crossed to the other chair. He sat, the water lapping at his ankles, and pulled a small glass bottle from his coat pocket. He twisted up the love letter, inserted it into the bottle and sealed it with a cork before tossing it away from him into the water between us. That was when I noticed the other bottles of letters bobbing in the water under the edge of the wooden planks.
Near the end of the show, an orderly led me back to the staircase from the beginning. This time we walked down the hallway that ran alongside the stairs, and she paused when we reached a door and indicated an opening under the stairs. "Sit down," she said. I found that there was indeed a chair there in the darkness, and I sat in the little black-painted cubby space, facing out. "Wait here until someone comes for you," she instructed, then she opened the door to reveal a full-length mirror hanging on the other side and propped it open at just the right angle for me to see through the mirror into the room beyond. There at the far end were pale blueish-green tiles; a long, white industrial sink with water running into it from long-necked silver fixtures; and on a stool at the sink sat Alice, topless, with her back to me.
I watched her bath herself with a scrap of a washcloth - there was nowhere else to look. After a few moments, she turned her head and made eye contact with me through the mirror. She watched me watching her, then slowly wrapped a towel around herself and walked towards me. Without crossing the threshold she reached out and pulled the door towards her. She didn't shut it, but closed it enough that I could only see a sliver of her slip. I heard rustling as she began to change, then she spoke: "Will you hand me my blouse?"
She slipped her hand out through the door, waiting for me. I looked to my right and found a white blouse hanging next to the entrance of my cubby. I handed it to her. "Thank you," she said.
Then, a moment later, "Will you hand me my skirt?" Again, I found it on the hook and handed it to her.
Then a third time, "Will you hand me my sash?" I did so silently.
Then, in the same quiet tone that she had asked for the clothes, she asked, "May I ask you a question?"
"Yes," I said, too quietly. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Yes."
"Is it better to do what you're told or to do what you want?" she asked.
I wasn't sure how to answer, and paused to think about it. "I think you should do both," I finally responded.
I could sense her nodding on the other side of the wall. "When was the last time you didn't do what you were told?" she asked.
I couldn't quickly think of a time, so I responded generically, "A few days ago."
"Did you get in trouble?"
I smiled. "No."
She opened the door then, and smiled back at me in the mirror. She propped open the door all of the way, then walked past me and down the hall. I heard her walk up the stairs, and then I saw her again the mirror, this time sitting on the stairs above me, looking back down at me through the mirror.
"When was the first time you fell in love?" she asked me with a cocked head, looking serious. It was a personal question, but then, I had just watched her bathe. Like the White Queen's bedtime story, I found myself in an incredibly intimate situation with a stranger, and yet intimacy seemed easier because of the strangeness. "How old were you?" she asked, and, "What was his name?" and "What did you love about him?' Then she asked, "Are you married now?"
"No," I said.
Her face fell. She looked so sad, a shattered innocence of childhood kind-of sad. Without saying another word she stood up and disappeared from my sight in the mirror. I could hear her run up the stairs above me, then silence. A few moments later, I heard footsteps again and a different orderly stepped into view. "The doctor will see you now," she said.
I followed her back up the stairs to the waiting room we began in. A single chair was pulled out from the line along the wall and set in front of the doctor's desk. The orderly indicated that I should sit, then left me. Shortly afterwards, the doctor came into the room and sat across from me at the desk. She pulled open a drawer next to her, and pulled out a chess board and a box of chess pieces. She set the board on the desk between us, then pulled out a white pawn and a red queen. "This is the story of how Alice won the game in eleven moves," she began, handing me the white pawn. The doctor then talked through the story of Through the Lookingglass, moving the pieces around the board to illustrate her narration. Whenever Alice acted, the doctor would indicate where I should move the pawn. It was the tale Lewis Carroll had written after his break with the Liddell family, but it was also the story of the White Knight, who protected Alice all the way up until her confrontation with the Red Queen. "Having reached the edge of the board," the doctor said, "Alice had a choice. She could move forward and become queen, or she could stay behind with the White Knight." Alice chooses to become queen. The Red Queen moves to her side. The White Knight retreats. And Alice moves to checkmate.
At the end of the tale, the doctor repacked the chess game, handed me a cup of tea and two folded pieces of paper clipped together, then left me alone in the room again. I opened the first paper. It was a copy of the acrostic poem from the end of Through the Lookingglass. The second paper was the program for the performance. As I read them over, one by one audience members were led back into the room and into the chairs around me. When all 14 were back, the doctor and the orderlies all took their places behind the desk, and the doctor announced, "That is the end of our show."
- - - - -
There were so many other wonderful moments - the White Rabbit dance with a butcher knife in a closet filled with white roses streaked with red; the Red Queen trying to seduce both Alice and the White Rabbit and later coming completely unraveled in a dingy asylum room; helping the Mad Hatter hang photos of Alice as he talks about how "not all matters are had, and not all hatters are mad," participating in a mad tea party with both queens, the Rabbit, and the Hatter proclaiming "I want a fresh cup! Move on down!" and then changing seats. I was walking through the pages of one of my childhood books, but I was also walking between the pages and behind them, and through places that are purely inspired by them. It was childish and creepy and lovely and sad and so much fun that when I realized it was coming to an end I could only think about how much I didn't want to leave yet because there was so much else to see.
It was, in other words, the kind of show that makes a 36-hour trip across the country completely worthwhile.