Zach Morris

A Warm Welcome to Paradise

Third Rail Projects wastes no time in sweeping their audiences off the dirty streets of Bushwick and into the fold of their latest immersive world, The Grand Paradise. There are no tickets to The Grand Paradise, only boarding passes, and you’ll receive yours after checking in at the departures gate of their retro-fantasy airline. After a brief “in-flight” video on resort rules, you’ll disembark into the warm, indulgent terrace of the Grand Paradise resort. Crowded with sexy, sultry residents, the space is bedecked in tiki paraphernalia—fake palms, beaded curtains and a giant aquarium (indeed, every detail of the production design smacks of the culturally confused late 70s). It’s not long until you’re greeted by the swoon-worthy Siren (Elizabeth Carena) and your immersive adventure at The Grand Paradise begins.

Following their wildly popular show Then She Fell, artistic directors of Third Rail Projects (Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett) have expanded their audience size and added elements of spectacle to their latest production. Yet despite the added glitz, Third Rail Projects still manages to afford all audience members the intimate moments that make this type of theater so thrilling. Certainly, not everyone is comfortable with audience participation, but Third Rail Projects has made audience involvement feel as fun and safe as possible. Around every corner of The Grand Paradise is an inviting situation that directly involves audience members (individually or in small groups). The best part about the immersive design of The Grand Paradise is that participants need only watch and listen, and they will be warmly invited into a wide variety of charming and thought-provoking situations. Audiences are instructed not to open closed doors, and there is no need to chase characters, or elbow to the front for a good view, which—for viewers like myself—is a frustrating aspect of popular participatory productions today.

The Grand Paradise keeps audiences entertained during their entire two-hour stay and, indeed, the ensemble cast is a veritable treasure trove of diverse talent. Each performer adds something unique to your experience, whether it be pondering the passage of time with the elusive Venus (Emma Hoette), topographically mapping your past and future decisions with the activities director (Alberto Denis), trashing hotel rooms with the mischievous Jett (Mayte Natalio), or tying nautical knots while at sea with the Libertine (Bryan Strimple). The truly outstanding moments of The Grand Paradise are when the theatrical experience conjoins itself with your own life—beckoning the contemplation of more universal themes of time, fate, love and loss. 

Like many immersive companies practicing in New York (Punchdrunk and Journey Lab), Third Rail Projects incorporates a good deal of contact improvisation dance into their experiences. While this style of post-modern dance is beautiful, and physically demonstrates meaningful tension and release between characters, it has become rote for many immersive performance makers. There are moments when these sequences linger for too long, losing significance and becoming somewhat monotonous. Within the marvelous bigger picture of The Grand Paradise, the slightly lengthy improvisational dance scenes are a forgettable flaw. 

Whether you are an amateur or seasoned immersive theater-goer, there is something for you at The Grand Paradise. The cohesive theme, remarkable talent and complex-yet-invisible immersive design make for a fun and refreshingly unique experience. While many immersive shows deconstruct existing pieces of literature such as Alice and Wonderland or MacBeth, The Grand Paradise creates a fascinating world of its own to which no parallel exists. Hold your breath and dive into Third Rail's The Grand Paradise.

The Grand Paradise plays in Brooklyn at 383 Troutman St. (between Irving and Wyckoff Aves.) through Sept.4. Must be 21 or older to attend. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing with pockets. Ticket prices vary and are available at

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Third Rail Projects has a rich production history of placing its audiences on the cusp of collaborative theater. Its dancer-actors are the clicking wheels of a larger machine; they are not themselves the stars of the show, but let an almost spiritual illusion take over that billing. In the long-running hit Then She Fell, experiential theater transcends all of its normal bounds to create just that illusion. The production, which is written, directed, designed and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, is a haunting take on Lewis Carroll's book "Through the Looking-Glass," and it derives every last morsel of dark lyricism from its source material. 

The show is set on the many-roomed floors of Kingsland Ward, a spooky hospital that looms above a dark, deserted street in Williamsburg. Moans and wails echo out of its windows; indeed, the setting seems more appropriate for a haunted Halloween night, seeing as a gated Lutheran church stands to the hospital's right side. "This is kind of creepy," says an unknowing audience member, as he cranes his neck to see the church's grey bell tower. We are yet to discover Then She Fell's liminal exploits; the thought of pushing boundaries doesn't often occur to the ordinary theatergoer, and the prospect of it seems titillating. 

A 15-member audience is invited into the building and asked to follow only two rules: do not speak unless spoken to, and do not open any closed doors. And once inside, the second rule is quite hard to follow. The building blooms into a magnificently bedecked universe of color, romance and magic. The beauty of each tableau is indescribable; each room is a gloriously fantastical rabbit hole with Alice, the Red Queen and the White Rabbit for guides. But in the files, papers and pictures we locate in these rooms, the audience realizes that Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland (Alice Pleasance Liddell, an 11-year-old English girl) is more a freewheeling obsession. His memories spin us across the many rooms of his mind, where Alice appears in twos and mirrors haunt the reflection of his face and soul. 

Every moment of the two-hour experience is tracked by a mesmerizing soundtrack of organs, piano fortes and cooing violins. Consequently, there is little speech or dialogue, an aspect of the production that surprisingly, doesn't detract from the illusion. Rather, it serves to affirm that happy deception (the sound designer is an inspired Sean Hagerty). Colors that complement this fantasy are used to great effect; the Red Queen is fiery in maroon ribbons, and her dominating dances occur in a blood-red room, while her uncontrolled, despairing dances take place in a pale white room. White is the ultimate antithesis to her existence. The disparate natures of red and white are never so apparent as they are in a stunningly concerted tea-time-fight-dance routine. 

The dance routines are splaying, grandiose things anchored to physical constants: staircases, tea tables,  chairs, and above all, mirrors. Glass mirrors figure in almost every room, reflecting ever fluid, legato movement of the dancer-actors. There is one particularly startling room where two Alices face each other across a mirrorless frame—the one inhabiting the other's image to surreal effect. But the glorying theme of the production is an beautiful, irreverent eroticism. The White Rabbit is unconscionably attractive for a woodland animal, and the Alices sway seductively against the object of their dual affections. Indeed, much of the production has been simplified, during its years-long run, into an eroticized interpretation of a classic children's fantasy story, sacrilegiously so. Then She Fell is more an ode to touchingly choreographed beauty and meaningful audience participation.  

The "don't speak unless spoken to" rule is easy enough to obey; stripping an audience of its inhibitions (such as talking directly to performers) is a difficult goal—one that the Then She Fell company does little to reach. This is through no fault of the performers themselves; entrusting an audience with the burden of collaboration is required of theatrical immersion. But to call upon a viewer to direct a performance is to cater to only a specific type of viewer: the extroverted, collaborative (and even brave) audience member. 

But beyond such trifling observations, the actual interactions with each character are like distilled dreams. Clutching our vials of red and white drinks, we are drawn into an illusion that is designed to be an ever so slightly disturbing, but fantastically inviting one. Their questions, on the many energizing character-interactions, trespass gently on your memories. "When was the last time you dressed up for someone? Have you told someone you didn't love them when maybe you did, just a little bit?"

The last cup of tea, in the last room, at the very end of Then She Fell was accompanied by a little acrostic poem by Carroll—the first words of each line spelled "Alice Pleasance Liddell." It was like one was handed a love note to remember them and the experience by. Here's the bottom line: cancel all dinners, postpone all appointments and make room on schedules for this date with Third Rail Projects. 

Then She Fell runs until March 27 at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns (195 Maujer St. between Bushwick and Graham Aves.) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Admittance is strictly limited to audience members 21 years of age and over; all audience members must bring valid government-issued photo IDs. The performance lasts roughly two hours without intermission. This performance is not recommended for audience members who are not comfortable standing, walking, climbing stairs or being alone. Tickets are $95-$200 and available to purchase at www.thenshefell.comFor more information, call 718-374-5196.


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