By Will Coviello | Gambit Weekly
The Humpty Dumpty in The NOLA Project's Adventures in Wonderland, a semiparticipatory dramatic adaptation of Lewis Carroll's two novels about Alice, doesn't sit on a wall. He hangs out on a bridge in the middle of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Instead of the hapless nursery rhyme character, he's a speech-impaired, slightly edgy social climber who wants to be invited to the A-list parties in Wonderland. Carlos Velazquez plays him to hilarious effect, especially as he insists that people crossing the bridge keep their elbows down, so as not to upset any (unnamed) other person.
Humpty is a minor character in Adventures. Audience members choose either to chase Alice through the garden, sit at the Mad Hatter's tea party or follow Alice's sister Esther on her wild adventure. But one of the things that makes the production so thoroughly charming is that all the characters in the garden are constantly active during the 90-minute show. One can go with Alice (Molly Ruben-Long) to the tea party to see if the Mad Hatter (Alex Martinez Wallace) knows who stole the Red Queen's tarts, and off in the distance, one will see Humpty conversing with the White Rabbit, or Mock Turtle lecturing some of the garden's sculptures of human figures. Under Andrew Larimer's clever direction, Wonderland feels like a living place where one is crashing the party along with Alice or one of her other sisters (one of whom doesn't exist in the books).
The three groups and their respective subplots cross paths throughout the show. One group follows Alice as she tries to discover who has stolen the Red Queen's tarts. The pace is quick, and it's best to stay near the front to catch every word as the group hustles along the garden paths. Audiences who wish to let the action come to them can bring a blanket or chair and stay at the tea party, but they won't get to visit the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee's puppet show.
Standout performances include Wallace's menacing Mad Hatter, Ruben-Long's earnest but determined Alice, Velazquez's comic Humpty Dumpty, buffoonish Tweedles, Price Provenzano and Cammie West, and the double-cast droll and snarky Cheshire Cats, Ross Britz and Dylan Hunter. As Mock Turtle, Chris Carrington seemed to aim for pretentious aloofness but came off flat.
Peter McElligott's adaptation is smart and effective. The work is suitable for all ages that can follow the 90-minute show (NOLA Project says 7 and up), and there are asides for adults. The Duchess (Kristin Witterschein) sells pepper soup and fusses about being a small business owner with payroll and profits to worry about.
Wonderland is a place full of absurdity and silliness, but Alice miraculously comes to make sense of it. Early on, she is told she will be blamed for taking the missing tarts because she is a "stranger," and it's always easy for the small community in the garden to choose to blame a stranger, even with no evidence of theft. What seems like a simple lesson about the cruel logic of scapegoating innocents seems to apply to real-life political spheres as a cautionary tale, and other caustic asides seem aimed at the frustrations of coping with governmental or workplace bureaucracies.
The intermissionless show flies by, particularly if one follows one of the two mobile groups. Wonderland thrills its audience with calamitous horrors (the Red Queen's constant threats of decapitation) and resolves them with a combination of silliness and earnestness appropriate for a children's tale. The entire cast gathers for the cacophonous and cathartic resolution at the tea party, and as the girls lament, it's sad one has to leave Wonderland. But one can return for at least two different takes on the adventure, and in a perfectly childlike way, enjoy the story again and again.
Through May 25
Adventures in Wonderland
7 p.m. Wed.-Thu. & Sun., plus Fri. May 16 & 23
Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, I Collins C. Diboll Circle, (504) 658-4100
Tickets $18 general admission, $12 NOMA members/university students/children ages 7-17