By Jim Fitzmorris | The New Orleans Advocate
Since he's staging a wild theatrical party, director Andrew Larimer is counting on New Orleans audiences to be themselves.
When he unleashes Peter McElligot's "Adventures in Wonderland" across City Park's Besthoff Sculpture Garden on Wednesday, the NOLA Project's founder fully expects patrons to be an active part of the show
"Unlike other theater cities where audiences are trained to sit still in the dark and passively absorb information, New Orleanians are uniquely suited for this sort of theater," Larimer said.
"In other places the rule is 'sit down and be quiet,' but New Orleanians, because of Mardi Gras and festivals, have a desire to interact, be part of the action."
Produced in conjunction with The New Orleans Museum of Art, this "Wonderland" is offering just that sort of experience.
An exercise in controlled chaos, company member McElligot's Lewis-Carroll-inspired text allows Larimer to end the company's season with one of his favorite forms of theater: immersive.
A growing trend in professional theater, the immersive approach puts its audience through the theatrical looking glass by requiring them to move, participate and choose outcomes.
Responsible for the direction of 2011's ebullient "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Larimer sees the approach as fully utilizing theater's unique component among the dramatic arts.
"Theater, at its best, takes you on a journey. And unlike the proscenium arch, which is often no match for movies, this sort of theater can take you on a physical journey in a way that no other medium can capture."
The site of "Midsummer," the sculpture garden's design suggested endless possibilities for a reimagining of the Alice tale. "The garden is perfect for Wonderland. The exaggerated sculptures, the twists and turns of the path all lend themselves to the story," said the director.
The production presents its audience multiple viewing options with a trio of offerings from which to choose. The three tracks can accommodate around 75 viewers apiece.
"The Cheshire Cat Fast Track" is a brisk evening that requires the intrepid to keep a quick feline pace through the garden.
A more leisurely stroll can be had on "The Red Queen's Walking Track." Finally, for those who like their theatrical evenings more traditional, the frenetic pace can be left to the actors themselves for "The Mad Hatter's Sit Down Tea Party."
But for all the discussions of Humpty Dumpty, White Knights and Mad Hatters, the challenge for Larimer was ultimately logistical.
In essence, the success of such an endeavor came down to answering the following question: How to tell three separate-yet-interconnected stories simultaneously with each running just over an hour?
Wrangling anarchic performances into a coherent overlapping whole would take more than simply a wild imagination. Controlled bedlam requires a precision beyond the clock of the White Rabbit.
"We began by making a priority of running time," said Larimer. "That involved shifting and cutting Pete's text, but it also involved literally walking the paths of the two moving stories. We timed the walks to approximate what it would take an audience to arrive from one playing area to the next."
This meant taking into account a variety of different audience member types and developing a series of playful stalling mechanisms/interactive games giving continual entertainment to those waiting for slower patrons.
It also required an ensemble able to work well together while possessing the necessary impromptu skills to deal with a moving proactive audience.
Therefore, Larimer populated McElligot's portmanteau world with longtime collaborators, recruited improvisational comedians and enthusiastic first timers.
Included in the merriment are company members Alex Wallace and Keith Claverie as, respectively, a Mad Hatter and March Hare in search of a door mouse, the New Movement's Kyle June Williams' as a Red Queen in search of a head, and various supporting players cultivated from the company's own summer intensive in search of experience.
Even artistic director A.J. Allegra is in on the frabjous fun as the White Knight.
For Larimer, those actors will serve as much as guides as performers.
"The plot is not that hard. The challenge, and the joy, comes in helping each audience member make their own journey."