Dying to get out of New York for a while? You might not have to take a plane to do it. Well, not a real one, anyway: The Grand Paradise is an immersive tropical escape in Bushwick that you can find through a pair of double doors on Troutman Street anytime between now and March 31. You’ll board a “plane,” watch an instructional safety video, then touch down at a strange beach resort far, far away and party with a group of impish hotel staff for one sensuous midsummer night.
You might be rolling your eyes at the above description, and understandably so: immersive theatre like this — you know, the kind that rips you from the teat of New York life only to deposit you in a virtuosic arena where people are going to touch you whether you like it or not — is a polarizing experience. And it doesn’t help that this one costs upwards of $100 to see. But asking yourself why you chose to live in New York (or more specifically, Brooklyn) when there are so many other cities in the world you could have gone to isn’t nearly so divisive. And that’s exactly what this show does.
Heck, that’s why Brokelyn writes about anything at all. Between real estate crises, political armageddon and neighborhoods losing their personalities left and right, we’re constantly asking ourselves, what’s left? What’s stopping all of us from moving to Detroit, anyway?
The plot of The Grand Paradise is a bit of an also-ran, but here’s the basic setup: a family of tourists (just like you!) arrives at The Grand Paradise Hotel for what they think will be a typical tropical getaway. And all the hotel staff are drinking “magic water” from an infinity fountain that is probably The Fountain Of Youth. Tourist mom takes a sip, and then all hell breaks loose for the next hour and a half as the windows steam up and the audience is pulled along for an orgiastic ride — it’s like Sleep No More meets Baby’s first night out in Dirty Dancing, meets the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Harry kisses a bunch of mermaids.
The audience is separated and made to experience the story in separate rooms and different ways. We watch as the every-family of innocent tourists gets roped into steamy contact improv sessions on the sand dunes. We’re told to steal clothing from guests’ rooms at the hotel, offered mystery shots (of pineapple juice) at the shanty bar. And all the while, the performers keep talking to us about paradise.
“Picture your perfect self,” one performer commands the audience, in a room lit by a glittering disco ball. “Are you male or female? Is your hair short, or is it long? Is the sun on your face, or at your back?”
At one point, the bartender gives audience members a lecture about destiny while making us pick either-or ingredients for two mystery cocktails. “This is the shit we’ll never know,” she says of the cocktail that doesn’t get picked, pouring it into a bottle for safe-keeping like it’s a witch’s brew.
These questions and isms feel important in the context of a tropical escape, but become terribly hokey once you exit the show and get on the L train. Which makes sense — it’s hard to apply the rose-colored lens of a fictional space to real life. Just as the benefits of a morning yoga class might be gone by the time you have a riff with your boss in the afternoon, the afterglow of The Grand Paradise dissolves pretty much instantly. Tori Sparks, a Sunset Park resident who performs a leading role in the show, told us that disillusionment is just par for the course of paradise.
“Every time you go on vacation, there’s always this doubt,” Sparks said. “Should I just stay and continue to do this? Why would I go back to New York? “
Sebastian Romagnolo, a 26-year-old resident of Bed-Stuy who also performs in the show, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Every time I get on the subway, I have the experience of asking myself, why the hell do I live in New York? What am I doing here? I work 12-15 hours a day, five to six days a week. The Grand Paradise is like, okay, If I’m gonna choose to do this, I’m gonna live in an apartment I can’t really afford, what is it worth for me? Is this what I’m looking for?”
Living in any big city comes with a built-in need to escape it every now and again, but moving out entirely would be a different story. Many of us joke about leaving the city if Trump gets elected or throwing in the towel if rent gets any damn higher, but look at us all: after years of MTA fare hikes and other crises that at the time seemed as though they’d be the end of life as we knew it, we’re still here.
Many people do choose to leave the city for greener pastures (or suburbs). They go West more often than not, or just try to end up “anywhere but here.” The story of waning affection for — and eventual departure from — New York City is well-chronicled: by Didion, perhaps even better by this recent New Yorker essay.
The Grand Paradise reminds you, in a swift 90 minutes, that a journey to paradise must inevitably be defined by your return home.
“It’s a paradox,” said Sparks. “Because if you lived [in paradise], it would be defined as living there.” Naturally, everyone suffers from the “other side of the fence syndrome.” A tale of two tweets:
why do I live in New York like out of all the states I’m in cold New York
— kristyn (@kristynnnicole) February 16, 2016
It’s snowing in New York aka perfection. Why do I live in Florida aka swamp of the devil?
— chelsa (@sucichelsa) February 16, 2016
Brooklyn, with its tree-lined streets and parkway bike paths and ample green spaces, doesn’t beg to be escaped the way Manhattan does; the “why do I live in [insert]?” refrain isn’t as common for us as for our island neighbors. So why stage The Grand Paradise here in the borough, where Manhattanites still fear to tread?
Jennine Willett, one of Third Rail Projects‘ artistic directors, offered that The Grand Paradise came to Brooklyn because it’s not just about escaping a city, but about reading between its lines and seeing the possibility of paradise therein.
“Bushwick is filled with transformative creative spaces, both outside and inside,” said Willett. “My favorite coffee shop is also a place to take yoga, a hopping bar, and a place for wild late-night karaoke. So [Bushwick is] a great place to create a hidden escape where you least expect it.”
Some of us even might even luck out as much as Sparks, who told us that her paradise in Brooklyn is her day job.
“I’m really fortunate to work at The Brooklyn Grange,” Sparks told us. “I’m a gardener and a farmer there. Having that as an oasis in the middle of the metropolis is quite beyond me.”
Whatever you’re looking for that you’re not finding anywhere else, I’d offer The Grand Paradise as a way to gain some perspective. If nothing else, the show an occasion to ask yourself all the questions you’re too scared to in the light of day, like why the heck you chose New York City when you know you can’t afford it.
Romagnolo shared his confidence that Brooklyn was the right place to be asking those questions, anyway.
“Audiences in Brooklyn are certainly more open to weirder journeys, less expected journeys. Brooklyn brands you with this off-the-beaten-path, a little bit experimental, a little bit bordering on the academic and creative line. In Manhattan, there would be a very commercial expectation. In Brooklyn, we can bring people on an intellectual journey without it being heavy-handed.”
The Grand Paradise runs through March 31, at 383 Troutman Street. Performances Tuesday – Sunday at 7pm and 10:30pm. Tickets are $110-$135.
Follow Sam on Twitter for more existential Brooklyn musings at @ahoysamantha
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