by Eric J. Grimm
So much theater in New York tries to lazily imitate the film experience while refusing to push boundaries that don’t need to exist when an audience is in the same room as the performers. Third Rail Productions’ immersive theater experiences not only thrust their audiences into a carefully constructed alternate universe, but also guide attendees through different paths instead of letting them wander from room to room trying to make sense of it all. Their previous production, Then She Fell, was a take on Alice in Wonderland, set in an asylum; it showed great promise for their more intimate style of immersive theater. Their new production, The Grand Paradise, is a full realization of that potential. The tropical resort that creators Tom Pearson, Zach Morris and Jennine Willett have assembled in a converted Bushwick space abounds with rooms that play host to highly emotive dance sequences and thoughtful monologues and conversations about the passage of time and shedding of one’s inhibitions.
Upon entering the space, it is immediately evident that plenty of work has gone into transforming the space. Scenic designer Elisabeth Svenningsen and costume designer Karen Young have created a beach resort environment that is heavy on kitsch but never distracting. The show’s opening number lays the ground for a plot that drives the labyrinthine action forward without restricting the possibilities of having deeply personal experiences with many of the cast members. As a siren (Elizabeth Carena) sings in a glittering and revealing outfit, goofily dressed tourists have their bags checked by boys in short shorts who promise a vacation that will change their lives forever. From here I was separated from my companion and, in a testament to the awe-inspiring amount of detail that goes into productions like these, we had remarkably different experiences. I was mostly guided by a Venus (Jessy Smith) who was a dead ringer for Laura Dern in Blue Velvet. The scenes I witnessed often had Lynchian vibes with a heavy dose of catharsis as Venus and others confronted me with thoughts and questions about time, space, and death. So often I’m skeptical of theater that tries to move me, but every performer I encountered took great care to bring me along on their journey. Far from being peeping toms, the audience here is engaged throughout.
My companion and I are still picking apart our dramatically different journeys. While she had an experience that was more physical and left plenty of time inside the space for personal reflection, I had a far more sexual experience as I witnessed island dwellers and hustlers seduce the tourists and encourage them to shed their clothing. There was nothing gratuitous about these scenes as they were beautifully put together to convey the struggle of identity and sexual awakening that comes with being raised in a repressed culture. Even in seemingly liberated New York City, I felt moved by these characters and willing to open myself up to a theatrical experience that confronts the fears and desires I share with so many others.
The Grand Paradise. Through March 31 at 383 Troutman St. in Bushwick, Brooklyn. www.thegrandparadise.com
Photos: Third Rail Projects