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Theatre in Review: The Grand Paradise (Third Rail Projects)

Wil Petre, Sebastiani Romagnolo. Photo: Courtesy of Third Rail Projects

So there I was in Bushwick the other night, lying on a table with cucumber slices on my eyes, being spoken to soothingly by a handsome young man who had previously massaged my hands with moisturizer. This was, I assure you, a professional obligation. I had booked a trip to The Grand Paradise.

Even in the annals of immersive theatre -- an old idea that has recently taken hold once again -- The Grand Paradise is a pretty elaborate exercise. The group known as Third Rail Projects has taken over a warehouse on a desolate Brooklyn street and created a faux version of the kind of all-inclusive resort that one sees in the Times' Sunday travel section. (Think Sandals.) It goes like this: On arrival, we are handed not a ticket but a fair replica of an airline boarding pass; you are left to mill about in a holding area, which also contains a bar. (I don't drink on the job, but something tells me that cocktails could only help.) Soon, you are taken into a much smaller room to watch a video, in the manner of airline safety announcements, laying out the rules: No excessive talking. Don't go through closed doors. In case of emergency, someone will escort you out. And no photos or video recording.

Then you go into a high-ceilinged room that is the main entry to The Grand Paradise. On the left is a small water tank with mermaids, like at Weeki Wachee Springs. There are cabanas, and a gallery level reached by a set of stairs that appears to be carved out of stone. Island-style music is playing on the sound system. Staff members, dressed in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, offer drinks and leis. Based on the way everyone is dressed, it is clearly the 1970s. While you're milling about, taking all this in, a family of five tourists arrives: Mom, Dad, two daughters, and one daughter's boyfriend. (I only know this because I have access to the press materials.) They look pretty Midwestern and buttoned up as they stand around gaping at the d├ęcor. Then a woman on the gallery level -- I think she is the one known as The Siren, but don't quote me -- launches into a seductive song. The mother, as if hypnotized, climbs up to The Siren and they slinkily disrobe and exchange outfits.

A pretend note of decadence having been definitively struck, you are invited to wander through several rooms, sometimes guided by the cast and sometimes left to your own devices. If you're with others, chances are that you may be separated for a time. Among my experiences: I held a mirror for a young lady, who laid down a line of "cocaine" (in fact, glitter), which she then pretended to snort. I and another man were invited into the dressing room of (I think) The Siren, who chatted with us from behind a screen while she changed costumes. She asked me to select a perfume; I gave her a bottle of Charlie. Some of us were taken into one of the resort's bedrooms and were invited to rummage through the guests' luggage. In the bar area, a mixologist concocted a fake rum cocktail -- well, if there was liquor in it, I didn't taste it -- which she distributed to us in shot glasses. Some of us ended up at picnic tables with maps and compasses and were given instructions in charting a course. And, of course, the massage treatment mentioned above. Most of these events featured monologues from the performers in charge about the importance of living in the moment, the unexpected twists of life, and various other musings. I can't be that specific because it's the sort of stuff that evaporates from one's mind five minutes later. (Some of it sounded like outtakes from a softcore film of the 1970s.)

As a piece of engineering, The Grand Paradise is fairly impressive; the interlocking warren of rooms includes a tiny disco and a patio with Greco-Roman statuary. (That's where another young man pretended to wash our hands, for some reason or other.) The lighting is often muddy, in what I take to be an attempt at creating a club atmosphere, and the sound a little tinny, although maybe it is just the insipid music that never stops playing. But the costumes are quite accurate to the period and most of the company members appeared to have gone the whole nine yards, adopting period hairstyles as well. But all this effort has resulted in a largely vacuous event. I keep reading that it isn't enough for young audiences to sit passively in a theatre, watching a play unfold; they need interactive entertainments that make them a part of the action. Then so be it, but then is The Grand Paradise, an exercise in atmosphere without a meaningful event, really the answer? Don't these hypothetical young people want the chance to think a little?

The notion of interactive theatre goes back at least to the '60s, when groups such as the Living Theatre drew physically close to audiences, sometimes inviting them up on stage, as part of a political statement. Throughout the 1980s, depending on where you lived, there were productions of Tamara, the interactive theatre piece in which guests wandered through a series of rooms, experiencing different plot lines based on which characters one followed; how well I remember its producers announcing that their new form of theatre would abolish those dreary old plays. And now it's all back again, with attractions such as Sleep No More, Then She Fell, the recently departed Queen of the Night, and The Grand Paradise. (One rather interesting production, Woodshed Collective's The Tenant, created a bizarre atmosphere of suspicion that fulfilled a dramatic purpose, putting us in the viewpoint of the title character; it's possible to use this format to good effect.)

But to what extent is The Grand Paradise really interactive? Is it really an active experience to wander around aimlessly, running into actors and being made to take in (rather silly) actions? The faux-sexy, let's-run-wild atmosphere -- the members of the tourist family keep reappearing, looking increasingly dazed with pleasure -- is directly contradicted by the utter lack of spontaneity. Talking back isn't encouraged, and there wasn't a single moment in the performance I attended where anything appeared to deviate from the highly scripted series of events; instead, everyone stood around passively while the actors did their thing, then the guests moved on. At least at a play -- a good one, anyway -- you get something to think about. The Grand Paradise is rather like going to a party where the guest list consists of eccentric strangers.

In any case, The Grand Paradise was directed, designed, written, and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, in collaboration with nearly twenty other members of the company. The cast is personable and efficient at keeping the evening moving along. If you do attend, keep your eyes peeled for the venue; there is virtually no signage and you don't want to end up like me, wandering up and down a street in Bushwick, wondering where I was. -- David Barbour

(8 February 2016)

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