Only minutes after walking through a hallway painted like the cabin of an airplane and handing my mock boarding pass to a charming man in a Hawaiian shirt, who greeted me with a lei, I was in a secret room getting a tarot reading. A woman asked me to pick three cards and think of a problem on my mind, which, as it happened, was: how was I going to write about a two-hour immersive experience set in a 1970s tropical resort? She spread out the cards, adorned with illustrations of beachgoers instead of the usual divination figures, one showing a person relaxed on a massage table.
A laid-back approach turned out to be the best tactic for The Grand Paradise, a two-hour dance-theater performance from the New York-based Third Rail Projects. (It recently extended through May, with tickets a bit steep at $135–150, although $60 rush tickets are also available through the Third Rail Projects mailing list.) In its grottoes, sandy beaches, bungalows, pool where mermaids swim, and disco lounges, all beautifully built out in a Bushwick warehouse, The Grand Paradise mixes loose narratives on lust, longing, and transformation, piqued with some heavy contemplation on death. In the dressing room of a disco queen, who offered shots from a supposed Fountain of Youth, she reminded me and my fellow audience member that “none of this is real,” meaning both our constructed identities and the place itself. Much like the spicy piña colada served with adobe pepper rum at the in-show Shipwreck Lounge, there’s a heat to the kitschy sweetness. There’s also a lot of New Age palm reading and philosophizing on life and our choices, not all of which melds easily with the experience.
Third Rail Projects is best-known for their ongoing Then She Fell in Williamsburg, also created by their artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett. Opened in 2012, Then She Fell reimagines Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a Victorian psychiatric institution. I attended early in its run, and while it had its awkward moments (like Alice asking me if I’d ever been in love while we were alone in a grimy hospital shower, just before Lewis Carroll himself crawled through the window), it was highly enjoyable to see the familiar characters distorted as if in a dream. Third Rail also experimented with the 1970s vacation vibe in their Roadside Attraction, set in a pop-up camper.
The Grand Paradise is much less structured. In Then She Fell you are on a guided track, taken by actors from place to place. The Grand Paradise starts with some bacchanal dancing featuring lithe and beautiful performers in short-shorts and lamé bathing suits (20 people from a rotating cast of over 40). Afterward, you are left to freely wander, although the cast and costumed crew guide the audience into smaller and smaller groups as the night winds down. Instead of a Red Queen or White Rabbit, you follow the paths of a nuclear family in meltdown.
Since I didn’t already know the characters, I found it harder to engage in their trials, which followed expected outcomes. The daughter has a sexual awakening through the lustful men and women of this Fantasy Island (who also give you the come-hither eye contact that seems to be an immersive theater staple, or at least shared with their Manhattan counterparts in Sleep No More). The mother longs for a new glamorous life; the father fears his mortality. If the show had an extra half hour, or even 15 minutes, to introduce these people, it would have added another layer of meaning. Dialogue is sparse and the dancing is mostly gestural, and even some more ambitious choreography might have contributed to connecting with their characters.
Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time, whether I was sitting in an egg chair and illuminating a mirror ball with a flashlight, or watching a cheesy flex competition between the cabana boys. Based on conferring with two friends afterward, each audience member will see something almost entirely different, and it’s meant to be a show where you only glimpse part of the greater whole. I apparently missed a drowning, a room filled with hourglasses, and entire character arcs.
The night had the summery haze of being out in the sun for too long, only to realize the next day which parts of your skin you left exposed. The moment that stuck was in a quiet grotto, where a woman in a glimmering bathing suit asked a group of five of us to make a wish. As we dropped our coins into a reflecting pool, she silently slipped into the adjoining tank, swimming in the ethereal water. When she returned, she plucked five coins out of the pool, asking, if you knew your wish would come true, “would you take it back?” I took the penny from her wet hand, and slipped it into my pocket. It was only the next day I remembered it and looked at the date: 1946. In the carefully built nostalgia of The Grand Paradise, there are these lingering moments that really feel like you transported to another place. “You know some people come all this way and don’t even get in the water,” the coin-bearing woman said. The Grand Paradise is the type of theater that has its best rewards when you submerge yourself in its retro flow.
The Grand Paradise continues at 383 Troutman Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn through May 29.