For the last three years, The NOLA Project has used the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden as a setting for Shakespeare productions. This spring, the company is using the twisting paths of the garden to bring audience members into Adventures in Wonderland, a dramatic and roving adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic tales Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass.
"We wanted to do a show that was going to move the audience all about the garden," says NOLA Project Artistic Director A.J. Allegra. "Alice in Wonderland is about Alice traveling from place to place being directed by whomever she happens to be talking to, so it just seemed like a natural fit."
The experience begins at the garden's lagoon when Alice and two sisters arrive by boat with their babysitter, Lewis Carroll. As they disembark, attendees break into three groups and each follows one of the girls. The groups explore different versions of the story at different paces. There's "The Mad Hatter's Sit-Down Tea Party," "The Red Queen's Walking Track" and "The Cheshire Cat's Fast Track," all directed by NOLA Project founder Andrew Larimer.
The Mad Hatter's tea party group, led by Alice's youngest sister, marches in a line from the lagoon to a lawn where audience members can sit on blankets and chairs. While other groups are heard in the distance, the Mad Hatter and his kooky clan tell one version of the story. Characters from the other groups, followed by their audience, may unexpectedly pop in and out of the scene.
The walking track is for people who want to move through the garden at a slow pace. It's led by Alice's older sister Esther as she heads a revolutionary coup to usurp the power from the White Queen.
Alice, played by actor/comic Molly Ruben-Long, leads the fast track through Wonderland on an adventure to find the Red Queen's missing tarts.
"This is certainly the most exhausting performance I'll ever do," Ruben says.
The running track calls for audience members to sprint at times, with helpers encouraging everybody to participate in goofy activities like making fart noises with each step in order to help Alice defeat the Red Queen with silliness.
"This show is a celebration of imagination and play," says Peter McElligott, a NOLA Project member who adapted Carroll's stories for the company. "I don't think there's any age limit you can put on that. The dream for most people is that regardless of age they can still imagine something; they still feel like they can play."
McElligott's vision incorporates the garden's sculptures, encouraging children and adults to view them with fresh eyes. Louise Bourgeois' giant Spider becomes "Bartholomew," a hideout for Wonderland's caterpillar. Michael Sandle's The Drummer, a bronze horse playing drums, becomes the White Knight's horse, which left him to join a band. George Segal's Three People on Four Benches, a rendering of three lifelike figures sitting near one another, becomes Professor Mock Turtle's students.
"We're introducing a lot of these sculptures in a new way that is musical and funny," McElligott says. "It's a way of highlighting that art is meant to be interacted with, not simply seen and then let go of."
The outdoor environment allows the company to fill the show with whimsical surprises. Trees and bushes make great hiding places for the Cheshire Cat, played by Dylan Hunter and Ross Britz; actors who look so similar that they're often mistaken for each other in the New Orleans theater scene. They take turns appearing and disappearing to create the illusion they're everywhere.
"I watched many different movie versions, I played video games, I read books, I listened to songs," McElligott says. "There's more than enough about these stories to tackle them from every different angle. In terms of my adaptation, I was hoping most importantly to embrace a sense of fun."
Attendees familiar with Walt Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland will recognize many of their favorite characters, and the script incorporates much of Carroll's texts, as well as contemporary comedic references.
"I think Pete was inspired by stuff like The Simpsons, Family Guy and other cartoons," Allegra says.
The original stories lack a beginning, middle and end, and that allowed NOLA Project creative freedom to rearrange the plot. Each track crosses paths, but Adventures in Wonderland is like three shows packaged into one.
"The idea was to inspire return customers," Allegra says. "We want people to get intrigued by the other tracks and come back to watch it again."
NOLA Project already has a spring 2015 production scheduled at NOMA. The show hasn't been announced, but Allegra says it'll be another familiar title that will take audiences around the garden in a new way.