It might not be what you expected, though.
As you step into the inconspicuous Bushwick warehouse (located right next to The Johnson’s), you enter a departure gate, clad with carpeting, a cushioned bench, and a smiling flight attendant behind a booth. For your reading pleasure are four issues of The Times, except they date back to the 1970s. Indeed, everything in your surrounding is a little dated. After watching a short boarding video, the doors to The Grand Paradise are opened, and you (and the other 60 guests) are transported to a distant, beachy tropical resort set in the swaying, raging ’70s.
Greeted with a garland of flowers placed around my neck, I am hit on by a handsome mustached man in very short shorts who asks me, “Have you ever been to paradise before?” When I inform him this is my first time, he smoothly replies, “Well it sure looks good on you.” As various characters come to welcome audience members, each just as suave and flirtatious (and all wearing teeny cabana shorts), you can’t help but notice the other characters perched on the balcony of the tiki hut, frequently reaching for water from a fountain (the Fountain of Youth?) to quench their thirst. Just below is an aquarium, except it’s a real woman swimming inside. Peer into the water, and she’ll stay suspended, starring straight back into your eyes.
“The Grand Paradise,” an immersive theater experience, guarantees this interactive, individualized and multi-sensory storyline for each of its guests. Third Rail Projects, the company behind this performance, is also responsible for “Then She Fell,” inspired by the Victorian and enchanted world of Alice in Wonderland, found one neighborhood over, in East Williamsburg. Unlike “Then She Fell,” however, which allows for only 15 audience members at a time, “The Grand Paradise” gets away with a much larger number, but without compromising on the amount of tailored, idiosyncratic experiences each participant gets to partake in. The wildly popular “Sleep No More,” an eerie Macbethian nightmare taking place in the fictional McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea—and created by the British immersive theater company Punchdrunk—cannot boast the same. Audience members who are chosen to receive individualized attention, either taken aside by a character, or given access to a floor no one else can enter, are seen as the lucky chosen ones, envied by other guests. “The Grand Paradise” is much more democratic.
Over the course of the next two hours, I will have the chance to explore the beaches, the bar, the bedrooms, the attic and the seemingly endless amount of secret rooms that magically fill up this resort, interacting with the performers of the play, either on my own or with others, snooping around the premises, sometimes walking in on lusty or rowdy choreographies. At one point, I am given a rose, told to lie down, only to realize a second later that I am now enclosed in a coffin. Apparently I have died, or perhaps the ceremony officiates the fact that I have departed from my past life and been offered permanent residency in a place where time seems to stand still.
However, the grounds of the Grand Paradise seem more monitored, and the audience’s experiences a lot more strategic and calculated than “Sleep No More.” Once you’re led with a few other audience members to witness a scene, the doors are often closed behind you, preventing you from further indulging in your nosy, inquisitive desires. This, however, perhaps points to the wider theme of the play: that while life essentially presents us with a multitude of choices, our current trajectory is sometimes shaped by the greater powers that be. That force is perhaps in the water. Just like Eve eating from the apple tree, the characters who drink from the fountain do so with consequence. As the play unfolds, so do their inhibitions, and their hedonistic lifestyle derails, for better or worse, as values and understanding of time and repercussions are blurred.
Overseen by the company’s artistic directors, Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, “The Grand Paradise” thus aims to capture the effects of a voluptuary decade and of our fleeting, ephemeral experiences we perhaps try too hard to contain and immortalize. Towards the end of the show, no one seems to be drinking from the fountain any longer. The characters, and you too, have changed. The singing siren who was there in the beginning to greet you, urging everyone to drink and drown with her, remerges to tell you she’s glad you’re here. Perhaps paradise is not as grand as it seems, and perhaps you’re really meant to stay.
THE GRAND PARADISE runs January 30 – March 31, 2016. Performances are Tuesday – Sunday at 7:00pm and 10:30pm. The Grand Paradise is located at 383 Troutman Street at Wyckoff Avenue. Admittance is strictly limited to audience members 18 years of age and over, so bring your I.D. Tickets are $95 – $150, available at www.thegrandparadise.com.