“What’s behind those doors?” I wondered frequently throughout my trip to The Grand Paradise, a new immersive production playing in Brooklyn. Presented by Third Rail Projects and overseen by the company’s artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, The Grand Paradise seeks to transport its participants into an exotic tropical locale in the 1970s where inhibitions are shed and pleasures are explored. But even for the most adventurous hedonists, the evening is not all fun and games.
After entering the Bushwick warehouse and checking coats and bags, we were welcomed by a flight video that informed us of what to expect in the journey ahead before being ushered into a room adorned with bungalows, a fountain and a glass aquarium that is home to a mysterious swimming figure or two. Along with the vacationing characters wearing typical resort outfits and carrying suitcases, the room slowly filled with natives of the resort. Clad in period-perfect attire – or lack thereof – they welcomed us to Paradise with a seductive song performed by Elizabeth Carena.
We explored by ourselves for the first half of the evening, wandering through the rooms which had been transformed into different locales in the resort. I found myself in taverna filled with marble statues and fountains where an intense young man informed me of the rumored fountain of youth hidden somewhere in the resort. Another room contained low chairs and tables surrounding a stage where a woman dressed as a mermaid performed various dance numbers with different sized pearls. I found a tiki bar down another hallway, and beyond that was a room filled with sand and high cliffs. Each scene featured lengthy dance performances depicting moments of longing and passion as well as fear and the power of seduction.
The remainder of the evening was more structured as cast members guided participants through the building. These scenes featured more (or any) dialogue about sex and desire and the passing of time and the fleeting nature of pleasure. The danger of giving into lust or passion and how it shapes or changes ones identity is explored as one man experienced a seeming baptism and rebirth after plunging into the pool water. During the opening number, one of the vacationing women appeared to be fascinated by Carena’s performance, and the two exchanged outfits – or was it identities? After being led behind one of the small closed doors, I was invited to bury the corpse of a small bird and then made to lie down on a bench and answer hauntingly whispered questions like, “Is it autumn when you die?” and “Are you alone, or with people?” I found myself especially moved by a scene where the man, after swimming in the resort’s fountain, was found dancing on the beach with a beautiful woman. But then the woman disappeared and he was alone, attempting to continue the dance by himself and eventually sitting and staring at the water.
Some scenes involved more intimate encounters, and at one point I was led into a young woman’s bedroom and engaged in a flirtatious pillow fight which was followed by a slow dance. And one of the vacationing young men often appeared in the same rooms as me, allowing me to witness his frequent resistance to the wealth of temptation that faced him, as well as his eventual submission.
While physical pleasure is clearly a priority for the residents of this resort, none of the nudity I witnessed felt exploitative, and male bodies were on display as much as (if not more than) female bodies.
Despite the apparent embrace of forbidden fruit, participants are ordered to never open any closed doors, and, in The Grand Paradise, there are many and they are indeed tempting. Despite the impressive surroundings and performances, at times I wondered what was happening in the other rooms and longed for the opportunity to move more freely through the rooms.
But, just like theatre, pleasure is ephemeral and vacations don’t last forever. That much is clear from The Grand Paradise. But it also begs the question: Are defined by our desires?