Immersive theater is a risky and expensive proposition. Letting an audience loose requires transforming every cubic foot of your space into both auditorium and set, illuminating and decorating it, and structuring time and circumstance to engage spectators wherever they wander and wherever they look. If artists succeed, they make magic. If not — well, piña coladas, liberally distributed, can goose participants into having fun anyway.
Following their triumphant 2012 Then She Fell — which invited small groups of viewers into a purported psychiatric hospital to explore the fractured psyche of Lewis Carroll — the team at Brooklyn’s Third Rail Projects (headed by artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett) have opened a second show. The Grand Paradise enlarges the audience and the landscape, turning a Bushwick warehouse into a tropical resort with flagstones underfoot, a palm-roofed gazebo, and bodacious beauties of both sexes prowling the grounds. The
period is the late 1970s; the airport lounge through which sixty visitors per performance are herded features dog-eared magazines from almost forty years ago. The clothes one family of vacationers shows up in are dowdy; their uniform blue suitcases have no wheels.
Unctuous hosts in Hawaiian shirts and butt-hugging shorts accost new arrivals in the multilevel lobby of the Grand Paradise, a tacky seaside pleasure palace. The beautiful “residents” climb the walls, ascending ladders and picking their way to drink at a ceramic water source that may be the Fountain of Youth. The safari-suited mother of the central family, wide-eyed Carly Berrett-Plagianakos, is lured by lounge singer Lily Ockwell into swapping her outfit for the chanteuse’s shimmering golden trousers and seductive top. The two depart their balcony perch together, setting up an expectation that the unfolding play — visible only in tantalizing parts to any given spectator — never fully satisfies.
A randy young guest (Jeff Sykes), frustrated by the incite-and-decline strategy of his ambivalent girlfriend (Kate Landenheim), kicks a balky cigarette machine, decides to succumb to the blandishments of a male hustler, and is thwarted even at that. The girlfriend’s father (Pearson in Bermuda shorts, the night I went) gets sandwiched into a threesome and is submerged in an illuminated pool, then ceremoniously dressed in fresh white garments. While his family’s coming undone, the rest of us wandering visitors entertain private invitations from the Paradise crew. These encounters try to elevate the discourse; they ultimately prolong what finally feels like a tedious holiday.
A rotating cast of 43 actor-dancers fills the production’s 20 roles. Performers address us, but don’t expect replies; they summon us into interior rooms and tell us lies or intone text that recalls T.S. Eliot’s poems about memory and desire, homilies on time and eternity. I was made to help bury a dead bird in a bed of sand. My companion found himself snugly encased in a coffin-like bench. We were parked, separately, in a room full of hourglasses; left alone in a dark closet, I finally discovered a flashlight and a pile of old Playboys. A beauty with damp hair (she’d been drifting underwater in the nearby pool) read my palm; she poured endless streams of water from a small urn into a wooden bowl, then smoothed my skin with a towel.
The problem here is one that haunts certain original musicals. Without the familiar characters — without the brilliant madness and psychological armature of Carroll’s life and work — the universe created in The Grand Paradise rings hollow. This show’s halcyon era, barely forty years behind us, yields less wonder, and fewer exquisite artifacts, than the group’s Victorian-set prior project (still running in Williamsburg).
Plus, the larger crowd means we’re constantly running into one another as we negotiate the maze of beaded curtains, sandy cabanas, tacky dressing rooms, and accommodations inhabited by off-duty “staff.” What starts off firmly grounded in the flesh — the grinning cabana boys in their very snug shorts; the young hostess who has us leaf through her record collection, engages us in a pillow fight, and finally takes off her bra — devolves into ruminations on the afterlife. After about an hour, I catch myself looking at my watch. After two hours, we are ejected into the Shipwreck Lounge, where exotic drinks with little paper umbrellas can be purchased, probably helping to close the show’s budgetary gaps (this despite its astronomical ticket price). Sleep No More, playing for years now in Chelsea, does this too. Absent the kindness of brewers and distillers, and the thirst of solvent millennials, the whole experimental theater scene might quietly expire.
We wind up back on the barren, frigid Bushwick sidewalk, heading for the subway. What lingers in the memory are random discoveries: scraps of macramé tacked to the walls, little piles of change on high shelves, a bowl inlaid with pieces of mirror that, caressed by a flashlight, mimic a disco ball. The visual environment is more successful than the temporal one; you imagine Elisabeth Svenningsen’s design team delighting in collecting the bric-a-brac cluttering the chambers and antechambers, the lobbies and crannies through which we stroll. Sean Hagerty’s original songs, “elevator music,” and sound design bathe us in smooth, synthetic Seventies pop.
Like its Victorian predecessor, The Grand Paradise will probably run forever. It’s no better than it should be, and no worse. But if you crave lyricism, dazzling performances in intimate spaces, and total immersion in true strangeness, score a ticket to Then She Fell.
The Grand Paradise
By Third Rail Projects
383 Troutman Street, Brooklyn