Audiences have been transported into a hidden fantasy realm among the live oaks, lagoons, and works of art in a new play by The NOLA Project underway in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. In The Spider Queen, a rebellious teenager on a mission to discover the truth about her father’s death and a squeamish park ranger who just wants to maintain some order find themselves accidentally thrust into an environment full of exotic creatures, nefarious villains, and a giant spider who rules the land. The production takes its cues from popular adventure stories of childhood and dazzles spectators with large-scale puppets, vivid masquerade, and extravagant costuming.
The Spider Queen will be staged on May 10, 11, 12, 14, 17, 18, 21, 24, 25, and 28. Admission is $25 for adults; $18 for NOMA members and Backstage Pass members (The NOLA Project), and children 17 and under. For tickets, visit nolaproject.com.
Catch a sneak peek of the production:
A.J. Allegra serves as artistic director of The NOLA Project, an experimental theater company now in its twelfth season. He spoke with Arts Quarterly about the ensemble’s long-running collaborations with NOMA.
How did The NOLA Project start?
The NOLA Project is an ensemble theater company that formed while eight of us were students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Our founding artistic director, Andrew Larimer, was from New Orleans, and he wanted to start a theater company back in his hometown, where he felt there was a glut of musical theater, but a lack of strong legitimate plays. So we came down here and formed an ensemble theater company, a group of theater artists — actors, writers, directors — who consistently work together on every show. So you’re seeing different plays, but you’re seeing the same faces over and over again onstage, playing different roles. We formed in 2005 while we were still in college. We came down during the summer breaks, between our school years. After we graduated, we moved to New Orleans full-time to continue the company, so we’ve been in operation now for 12 years.
You’ve staged a number of plays in the Sculpture Garden. What is it about that space that has been particularly interesting to work with?
The Sculpture Garden is fun. I particularly like it because it lacks a lot of straight lines. It has a very playful aesthetic to it. When you walk into it, you kind of feel young again, You feel kid-like. The first time I ever walked into the Sculpture Garden, it felt very Alice in Wonderland, to me, which eventually became one of the big hit shows that we produced there. It’s a place of discovery. The way the paths wind around, and you can take a different tour of the art every time you go in. We always thought that it would be a great venue to present our work, because so much theater is presented in big boxes that are indoors. The Sculpture Garden is such an environmentally strong setting, depending on where you stage the play, or how you move the audience through the space, you can give people a vastly different experience. There are very few times during the year where it’s perfectly pleasant to be outdoors for long periods in New Orleans. And so when we do it in May, right after Jazz Fest, it’s just quite ideal to watch the sun go down, and experience the dramatic daytime shift into night in the Sculpture Garden.
What can audiences expect from The Spider Queen?
The Spider Queen is an original adaptation that is really inspired by one of everyone’s favorite sculptures in the garden, the Louise Bourgeois Spider statue. But that’s just kind of the starting point for the play. It’s a story about a girl and a park ranger who somehow stumble into another dimension. Very much like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where they encounter this highly fantastical world of non-human creatures, and there’s a big battle for power. Because the kingdom is ruled by the Spider Queen, and we don’t exactly see her until the very end, which is … It’s a highly theatrical moment. The play will involve lots of mask work. We have a Portland artist named Tony Fuemmeler who’s designing all of the masks for the characters. We have artist Kenneth Thompson, who’s designing large-scale puppets for the production. And we’re staging this play in the round, for the first time. So those are three brand-new aspects that we’ve never brought to any Sculpture Garden production before. Needless to say, it’s a high spectacle production.
You have also staged plays in NOMA’s Great Hall. What does that space provide?
In the Great Hall, we’ve staged three Shakespeare plays. We presented Romeo and Juliet, then we staged Twelfth Night, followed by The Winter’s Tale. It is truly a great hall. Of course that’s the name of it, but it’s a unique space to perform in, because of the grandiosity of it. You really can’t compete with the space, so there’s no point in ever really building much of a set there. You can add furniture, but you can’t add structure, because the structure is so grand, and it is what it is. You just get out of the way and let the space speak for itself. And for Romeo and Juliet it’s particularly excellent, because it has a wraparound balcony. The Spider Queen will be staged from May 10 – 28. For more information and to purchase advance tickets, visit nolaproject.com.