By Chris Waddington, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Alice chased the rabbit and I followed her through the sculpture garden at New Orleans City Park. That’s how it worked at an April 29 run-through of The NOLA Project’s “Adventures in Wonderland,” an immersive theatrical experience that draws from two childhood classics by Lewis Carroll, and uses the garden’s entire, five-acre footprint.
It’s a style appropriate to this fast-rising young troupe, which recently scored successes with Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and with the sprawling ensemble piece, “A Truckload of Ink,” by local playwright Jim Fitzmorris.
For this show, the company again partners with the New Orleans Museum of Art, which operates the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
The choice of material shouldn’t surprise fans of the troupe, said artistic director A.J. Allegra.
“We do a lot of serious work – but as a company we have a silly side, too,” he said. “And we like to stretch ourselves – from a Williams classic about sexual dysfunction and family troubles to word games with the Mad Hatter.”
“Wonderland” is the seventh collaborative venture for the flagship museum and the acting troupe that moved here, en masse, in 2005, when most of it members were fresh out of college. In what proved one of the early signs of the city’s current theater renaissance, the ensemble returned to flood-ravaged New Orleans in 2006 when its relationship withNOMA commenced.
Three Shakespeare productions, all set in the garden, helped to make the company’s reputation.
“We love working in the garden. It’s a setting that has a magical theatrical quality all on its own,” Allegra said. “Still, we knew that we hadn’t tapped its full potential – all those surprises you get as a visitor when you turn corners and suddenly see an amazing monumental sculpture or a view across water to some towering pines. ‘Wonderland’ is our attempt to exploit that.”
As staged by director Andrew Larimer, “Wonderland” offers three distinct storylines – and three paths through the garden – which eventually lead to an ensemble conclusion featuring most of the characters from Carroll’s books. About 20 actors are involved — most from the ranks of The NOLA Project. A half-dozen ringers came from the improv comedy community in New Orleans
To follow Alice, bring your track shoes: the script keeps the audience (and the Cheshire Cat) jogging between the girl’s encounters with a dozen characters, including the Caterpillar, the Duchess, and the Mad Hatter. Another track, led by the Red Queen, takes a more leisurely pace. For those who prefer to watch the play from a picnic blanket, the third option includes a full retelling by a trio of actors at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
“This isn’t one of those interactive pieces that put audience members on the spot, but there are plenty of opportunities to gently engage with the characters in the course of the piece,” Allegra said. “For example, we’re asking guests to dress in different colors depending on the course they choose. Wear red for the Red Queen and you’ll look like part of her entourage when the groups come together.”
Allegra called the 80-minute production, “part theater, and part theme park – with an emphasis on the self-guided, adventurous part that you get when exploring a theme park.”
Crafting the piece was a challenge for playwright Pete McElligot who also is a member of The NOLA Project.
“Pete read the books and looked at a dozen films made from the material and even found that there is a pornographic version of the story – who knew about that? His script honors the episodic nature of Carroll’s original, but creates the kind of dramatic arc you need for a live theater piece. He also invented two sisters for Alice – characters that don’t exist in Carroll’s books.”
In the opening scene, the three sisters — and Lewis Carroll — arrive by rowboat on one of the garden lagoons.
As the story unfolds, the actors make use of the sculpture garden setting in other ways. After Alice drinks a shrinking potion, for example, the giant metal spider created by artist Louise Bourgeois becomes a convenient prop for suggesting her change of scale.
McElligot’s script mixes original dialogue and sketch comedy routines with texts lifted directly from Lewis Carroll. It includes such famous nonsense as the poem of the Jabberwocky and the riddle from the Mad Hatter’s tea party: “How is a raven like a writing desk?”
The NOLA Project doesn’t answer the riddle in this production, but the company settled one detail from the start: “Adventures in Wonderland” is an all-ages show.
“We’re selling a lot of a discounted tickets for children, but this is a show that parents and single people will also like, with plenty of jokes that will sail right over the heads of kids,” Allegra said. “Carroll’s books didn’t survive because they only appeal to children – and we’re aiming for the same kind of success. Magic isn’t age restricted.”
The NOLA Project presents “Adventures in Wonderland”
What: Andrew Larimer directs “Adventures in Wonderland” by Pete McElligot, which freely adapts Lewis Carroll’s classics of children’s literature to create an all-ages interactive theater experience. Participants select which route they would like to take.
Where: The New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, 1 Collins Diboll Circle, New Orleans.
When: Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, May 7 through 25; Fridays May 16 and 23. Seating begins at 6 p.m.; Show starts at 7 p.m. sharp
Tickets: $18 for adults; $12 for NOMA members, college students and children 7 and to 17. Children 6 and younger are not permitted. To purchase tickets go toNOMA.eventbrite.com.