Instead of The Grand Paradise feeling like a sexy escape to a 1970’s tropical paradise where people can let down their hair and explore their desires, it comes across as a desperate wannabe resort – akin to Mount Airy Lodge trying to be relevant long after the heyday of the Poconos were over. This immersive show by Third Rail Projects (famed for the celebrated Then She Fell) holds the promise of a sensual, boundary-pushing adventure, tantalizing with one-on-one encounters that could get hot and heavy, but in reality it suffers from tiresome repetition and without a solid dramaturgical core there’s limited bang for your substantial buck.
Set in a hedonistic island club with a rattan gazebo, Moroccan-style light fixtures, and a dingy fountain that may or may not be the Fountain of Youth, a family of visitors arrive. We mingle with these new arrivals and the island denizens (Do they work at a resort? Do they live on the island? Are we even on an island? I’m already confused and a little lost). Upon entering we get leis and it’s all a Very Brady Hawaiian vacation. There are ceremonial moments of drinking water out of Hawaiian calabashes. Then, the vibe shifts, and a Stevie Nicks-esque figure in silver lamé serenades us. Her siren song is so strong the mother of the family climbs a wall to be with her, abandoning her husband and her clothes as she does so. As the opening scene breaks up we follow the tourist family as they lose themselves in this mysterious place.
Third Rail prides itself on a carefully curated experience so no audience member is left chasing scenes or characters and ends up experiencing nothing but a case of FOMO (as with some other immersive shows). Therefore, The Grand Paradise, which is based on a concept by Tom Pearson, directed, designed, written and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, is staged with large group scenes for the whole cast and audience together, breakaway moments for small groups of audience members, and some one-on-one action between audience members and individual performers. You may see different couplings in a variety of places: a tiki bar, a lifeguard’s lookout point on the beach, a disco. Parties are broken up at the show so you and your friends may experience different parts of the narrative.
I’ve been seduced by one-on-one and immersive theatre before. It can be intoxicating—that tantalizing lure of being swept through the looking glass and falling deep into an imaginary world where you can pretend for even a moment you are a part of the action. Here, for all the promise of such a provocative premise, The Grand Paradise makes it challenging to give over completely to an environment that is tightly controlled, vaguely executed, and lacking in any real risks. Sure there was macramé on the walls, shelves of wooden pineapples, American Tourister suitcases from the period, and an orgy of silver lamé costumes, but this was also sadly mixed with some questionable design elements (weird sculptural surfaces to dance on which looked like my attempt as an 8 year-old to make papier-mâché mountains). Everything felt a bit cramped and thrown together.
One could overlook the setting and design nits if there was an engaging narrative. But the gambit is incredibly thin. Is it about the Fountain of Youth? If so, why are most of the arriving characters young? Is it about sexual freedom? But then why do we hear from the performers in our small groups about time, memory, mortality, and storms? Is this a metaphor about the pending AIDS epidemic in the 80’s? Or just the new age natterings of the 70’s? Nostalgia can only get you so far if it’s denuded of meaning.
Throughout the show there is a lot of “seduction” but not a lot of stakes. These visitors immediately lose themselves in their vacation spot and get their groove on with one or two people and then sometimes with a whole group. But since everyone seems a willing partner there’s no conflict. Great for the happy holiday-makers, slightly less fun for those of us on the lookout for drama.
Most of the storytelling is achieved through dance and unfortunately the choreography fails to speak for the characters or propel things anywhere. With unfortunate sameness, oftentimes it feels like cheap filler as we wait for audience members to be reassembled to move onto the next sequence. I kept waiting for the couplings to evolve, change, or generate heat, danger, or both. My kingdom for a spat between lovers or some friction beyond silver lamé rubbing up against silver lamé. For a show about sex and desire, it was quite tepid and tame. The characters just make out. While clothed. A lot. Through interpretive dance.
Nevertheless, I did experience several scenes of full frontal male nudity which was not the case for a fellow Exeunt writer who ended up on a different story path within the show the same night and saw one bottom and nothing else. In one instance (for no plausible reason) I watched a lone man strip down naked on a sandy beach, crouch down on his legs, look longingly at a Winston cigarette machine (that’s on the beach?) and then stand up and get dressed again. I worried about how much sand the actor was getting up his bum. Maybe I was supposed to feel this young man’s frustration at not being with the man he desires. But that would involve reading a lot into a pretty dull, narratively questionable striptease.
On the upside, I got to engage in some slow-dancing with two of the hustlers (one male and one female). In the show you are asked to follow the lead of the actors – who in these instances took me in their arms to dance – but not misbehave by touching anyone on your own accord. There’s a pretty intimate and intense one-on-one scene offered in a young man’s bedroom which was the first and really only time things got steamy for me as an audience member. As fun as this “seven minutes in heaven” with a handsome hustler was, after almost two hours of waiting for something even approximating this kind of heat, it came off as too little, too late.
The Grand Paradise is open until 31st March 2016. Click here for tickets.