Waiting to board my plane, I flipped through a Time magazine sitting on the table nearby. Nixon was traveling to China, people were wondering whether or not hippies made good parents, and the Honeywell Pentax was one of the best cameras on the the market.
A minute later I left the windy streets of Bushwick and “touched down” into a fantasy vacation from the past, filled with louche revelers sipping from the so-called “fountain of youth” and spouting pearls of New Age wisdom. “Welcome to The Grand Paradise,” said a man with a spot-on ’70s porno ‘stache and tight jean cutoffs, smiling suggestively into my eyes as he lifted a flower garland over my head. A siren in a silver lamé bodysuit rose and warbled a haunting poem about drinking and drowning– the perfect beginning to our descent into 1970s excess.
This particular version of paradise is the second immersive theater piece from Third Rail Projects. The first, Then She Fell, a riff on Alice in Wonderland inside an eerie hospital ward, is still running in its third year nearby. But while Then She Fell is small and personal with only 15 audience members per show, The Grand Paradise is more expansive in its ambitions, more loose and free-flowing in its subject matter.
“Structurally, it’s about giving the audience more of their own agency in the world, to make their own choices, and still offer that curated experience at the same time, so they are guaranteed some intimacy with the performers,” the show’s artistic director, Tom Pearson, told me afterwards.
The rough narrative follows a whitebread suburban American family that, from the looks of their high-waisted shorts and safari pants, thinks Leave it to Beaver is plenty of stimulation. But upon arriving at the resort they leave their baggage aside (heh) and separate to embrace different journeys of rejuvenation. Along the way they each confront their own themes, like mortality, fame and sexual awakening. (Ok, everyone experiences some level of sexual awakening– this is the ‘70s, after all).
The audience is beckoned to follow them through sandy beaches, musty bedrooms and a tiki bar, following different plot lines– and sometimes finding themselves in highly intimate situations. At one point I sat in a private room and held a cabana boy’s fresh cucumber in my palm as he gave my husband a hand massage, whispering about his ability to “understand what people need and give it to them.”
Don’t worry– you’re not going to get groped. But this level of intimacy and boundary crossing, often combined with such conversational monologues, happens frequently in between the more orgiastic group scenes. Sometimes these moments are charged and suggestive, other times simply cozy or cute. Audience members might be handed an object– a piece of clothing or rope (and once in a while, a drink)– and asked to help a performer with a task. It’s a step beyond what other immersive shows (ok, the main one you’re probably thinking of, Sleep No More) usually offer and The Grand Paradise is designed so that everyone gets a few personal touches.
“The question was: can we push people to a bit more of a place of questioning and discomfort and then see if we can get beyond that, so that it feels like it lands philosophically for them?” Pearson explained.
The show’s xylophone-laden tropical soundtrack and rowdy cast of supporting characters– vibrant hustlers, vixens and even mermaids– very much emanate from a specific sense of place. So it’s not all that surprising to learn that Pearson is from St. Augustine, Florida, which still is a tourist stop for its “fountain of youth” claims. Recalling vague memories of growing up in the ’70s, Pearson said he found the wild excesses and social experimentation of the period to be fertile territory for exploring themes of yearning and transformation, combined with a dark current of nihilism and self-indulgence.
“It’s asking: if you could have anything you want, what would it be? And if you could get it, then what would you do with it– and then what would you want beyond that?” said Pearson. I couldn’t help but see Don Draper’s next-decade incarnation prowling meditatively along the fringes in his pure white shirt from the finale.
Since the 1970s cultural landscape is such familiar territory for many (cocaine goddesses, libertine disco kings, cheesy New Age vapidness and all) it’s easy to lock into the archetypes and understand the gist of the fragmented scenes. “A lot of the kind of inspirations, in terms of the time period, came at looking at what the collective fantasy of the era was,” he said, tossing out touchstones like Loveboat and Charlie’s Angels.
“It’s fun, but also tongue-in-cheek and ridiculous,” Pearson added. “And it sets up this framework of irresponsibility and frivolity that then you can subvert later, by kind of turning a corner on that, and going somewhere more meaningful.” This effort is reflected in the odd philosophical moments when the performers wax poetic on the nature of life and desire– a palm reader who broods on the nature of nostalgia; a bartender who questions our attachments and fears. Some of these Buddhism-lite bits of existential “wisdom” feel hokey to our cynical 21st century ears, but fit right into the disillusioned optimism of the era we are visiting.
No matter what, The Grand Paradise is a disorienting, entertaining escape, one that playfully blurs the lines between performance and reality.
“You know none of this is real, right? It’s all just an act,” the sultry siren told me. I was sitting in her dressing room, helping her change into a shiny disco bodysuit with a feathered vest. “This is the scene where I tell you the truth,” she continued. For a split second, I was jolted, confused at this art-imitates-life confession. Was she speaking to me in confidence, out of earshot of the choreographed show? Or was she simply the starlet of the resort, musing on her performance? Then, she pulled out a wooden box and poured me a sip of the real magical water.
The Grand Paradise, from Third Rail Projects, 383 Troutman Street, now playing through March 31. Tickets $95-$150.