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The Grand Paradise Theater Review: Bushwick’s Titillating Tropical Resort

“The Grand Paradise” can be a fun, hip and sensuous two-hour holiday with a cast of 20, all attractive, some barely clad, in a cleverly designed beach resort from the hedonist 1970s. It can also be a confusing and uncomfortable trip to a Bushwick warehouse dressed up to be a tacky tropical island, except without any of the sun or recreation or relaxation. Or it could be both.
Much as in a vacation, the show depends on chance – what night you’re seeing it (the cast members vary), whether the fates and the performers favor you — and, let’s face it, your own disposition for this kind of immersive theater.

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Will the cast be like geishas flirting silently or like counselors at an adult camp teaching you how to tie knots? Will you get drawn into a pillow fight; cuddle with a mermaid; happen to peek through the blinds at two apparently naked young men surreptitiously embracing? Or will you be placed in a coffin; stuck by yourself in a room (with all the doors closed) watching a cast member who seems to be sleeping; shut into a tiny room with nothing but a dressing room mirror, told via headphone to stare at yourself – “Look at your perfect skin. Look at your perfect brow.” Or both?
Will you be able to – or bother to – follow what comes closest to a plot, the arrival at this resort of a family of five and their various supposedly surreptitious erotic, violent and mind-bending adventures? Mom (on my night, Carly Berrett-Plagianakos) loosened up so much that she undressed and exchanged clothes with a sultry cabaret singer.
Or will you instead be distracted by – or prefer to focus on – the personal and often oddball encounters you have with the cast?
After the 60 theatergoers gave in our “boarding passes,” entered a narrow corridor and watched an “in-flight video” from “Finis Air” that informed us that we are not allowed to open doors that are shut, a door opened onto the first and largest room. A man in a Hawaiian shirt draped a lei around my neck. Minutes later, a woman in tropical attire removed the lei, and led me into a little room with four other theatergoers. She silently motioned for me to kiss a small wooden cup, then brought the cup to a bearded theatergoer and had him fill it from a bottle of liquid she had given him. Then she brought it back to me and motioned for me to drink it. I did so. Luckily, it was just water.
Then she repeated the routine – or should I say ritual – with wooden receptacles of increasing size until I was downing a large bowl of water, and wondering if there were any restrooms in this paradise.
Third Rail Projects, the company behind “The Grand Paradise,” also created “Then She Fell,” the hit immersive theater with an Alice in Wonderland theme which has been running for three years. There are some similarities. The set is full of meticulous attention to details. Many of the rooms have real beach sand; there is a Weeki Wachee kind of deep blue water tank in which some of the performers swim – particularly period details. The Time Magazines in the waiting room all date from the early 1970s, the jukebox in the bar has a list of 70’s songs. The actual music piped in continually is original, albeit infused with a familiar other-worldly zombie sound, like Grace Slick singing White Rabbit (which, yes, was the 1960’s not the 1970’s; I don’t think Third Rail was going for acoustical authenticity.)

Much of “The Grand Paradise,” like much of “Then She Fell,” consists of wordless interpretive dancing. To pick one of many, many examples, two of the tourists, now drunk at the Shipwreck Lounge engage in a skilled and stylized fight. Both shows employ a cast well-trained in physical theater and both sensitive and flexible in its  spontaneous interaction with the audience.

One difference could be crucial to your enjoyment. We arrive at “Then We Fell” knowing the context – it’s about Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, and his relationship with Alice Liddell. There are all sorts of letters and postcards and photographs that illuminate this literary history, and even the oddest behavior of the cast is directly related to it: “Ah, that’s the Red Queen,” I suddenly realized long after I should have while watching a crazy dance by a lady in a red dress.
The context in “The Grand Paradise” is less specific (the 1970s), its cultural allusions less direct and less substantive (Fantasy Island comes to mind.)  In fairness, death and love are themes threaded throughout the show, mostly in 70s-style self-help monologues, where the characters talk about the choices one makes in life.  But overall the new show does less than “Then She Fell” to stimulate our curiosity and intellect, and it doesn’t seem designed to engage our emotions, at least not in the way good theater traditionally does. “The Grand Paradise” is not a parody; there was very little that’s funny, at least not intentionally, and when the cast isn’t being flirtatious they are as serious as acolytes engaging in sacred ritual, persuasively sincere in their 70’s New Age-speak. Actually, even the flirtation feels like ritual.
What’s on offer here may be a kind of faux-nostalgia, especially since the bulk of the audience for “The Grand Paradise” is unlikely to have been alive in the 70s, and a hip factor that may exert a kind of peer pressure.
The individual performance I may remember most vividly from “The Grand Paradise” occurred when a male cast member draped himself sensuously around a theatergoer, and then pulled her seductively through the main room to the bar, and began to dance with her, before abruptly scurrying away. I noticed that another theatergoer (besides myself) had followed all this, and that he had the world’s most uncomfortable-looking grin plastered on his face, as if trying to communicate to everybody and nobody that he was totally cool about somebody touching his wife.

The Grand Paradise
In a warehouse in Bushwick at 383 Troutman Street, Brooklyn, NY 11237
By Third Rail Projects
Artistic Directors
Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, Jennine Willett
Based on a Concept by Tom Pearson
Directed, Designed, Written and Choreographed by
Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett in collaboration with The Company
Cast (during the performance I attended)”

Mom – Carly Berrett-Plagianakos
Dad – Erik Abbott-Main
Older Daughter – Erika Boudreau-Barbee
Younger Daughter – Ashley Robicheaux
Boyfriend – Niko Tsocanos

Siren – Elizabeth Carena
Midas – Roxanne Kidd
Cabana Boy – Sebastiani Romagnolo

Venus – Jessy Smith
The Lady – Marissa Nielsen-Pincus
The Gentleman – Carlton Cyrus Ward

Jett – Rebekah Morin
Activities Director – Alberto Denis
Libertine – Bryan Strimple

Aqua Twin Girl – Elisa Davis
Aqua Twin Boy – Matthew Albert
Lifeguard – Zach Martens

William, a hustler – Edward Rice
Grace, a hustler – Katrina Reid
Farrah, a hustler – Julie Seal

Running time: 2 hours, no intermission.
Tickets: $95 to $150
The Grand Paradise is scheduled to play through March 31, 2016

Update: The Grand Paradise has been extended through December 31, 2016. This is the final extension.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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