By Stephen Babcock | The New Orleans Advocate
In the NOLA Project’s latest outdoor, theatrical romp, the NOMA Sculpture Garden is woven into Wonderland and the audience decides on their play. Then, there are the fart noises. Adventures in Wonderland, which opens Wednesday (May 7), seeks to pull the scenery and the crowd into the production for an immersive twilight journey through the land first dreamed up by Lewis Carroll in 1865.
For the NOLA Project, strict interpretations of Carroll’s work and the unwritten rules of theatre are not in the cards. British accents remain intact, but company playwright Pete McElligott and director Andrew Larimer added some new faces and tinkered with story lines for the fresh adaptation designed to accommodate the space under the oaks, and the 2014 theatre-goer.
In McElligott’s version, Alice gains a pair of sisters. Along with providing some added narrative thrust at the show’s opening and closing, the siblings form the basis for the production’s interactive slant from the outset.
Immediately upon passing from City Park to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, audiences are given a choice to follow Alice (Molly Ruben Long) on a fast track through the grounds (her costume includes running shoes to prove she’s ready), or her sister Esther (Kyle June Williams) on a more moderately-paced walking path. For those who don’t like their actors telling them where to go, pulling up a lawn chair to the Mad Hatter’s tea party is also an option.
The separate, roving tales give the company a chance to incorporate a wider breadth of art into the production than in past collaborations with NOMA. In turn, the sculptures repay the favor by providing fresh ways to look at some of Carroll’s famed characters.
For instance, a stop on Alice’s jaunt includes the Garden’s much-loved giant Spider. Housing the Carroll concocted caterpillar, Louise Bourgeois’ work communicates the scale of the shrunken Alice, and the ominous nature of her predicament. Later, the Mock Turtle teaches George Segal’s figures on benches, and the White Rabbit was spotted talking to a separate, hand-rendered turtle. Whether the sculptures are props or characters remains a mystery. But, like the disappearance of the queen’s tarts, their mere presence only adds opportunities for wordplay and whimsy.
While time is always a little elusive in Wonderland, the approach of sundown during the second half of the show allows for an even more transporting feeling. The Cheshire Cat, played with cartoonish pluck by both Dylan Hunter and Ross Britz, gains a light on his colorful costume and suddenly becomes a little more sneaky when hiding in the bushes. Meanwhile, the illuminated sculptures provide the glow of a stage, with the added benefit of Spanish Moss swaying overhead. Providing further dimension, the characters maintain their poses even when they don’t have an audience.
The room to roam and a constant silliness that would have been out of place in previous Shakespearean productions gives Wonderland a bristling energy that’s made to reach beyond seasoned theatre-goers.With pleasing moments inserted for the whole family and three different viewings possible, the NOLA Project is undoubtedly hoping that New Orleanians fall down the rabbit hole more than once.
NOLA Project’s Adventures in Wonderland runs May 7-25 at the New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden. Tickets are $18 for Adults, and $12 for NOMA Members, University Students, and Children (7 to 17).