May 082017

“The Spider Queen” cast rehearse the opening sequence of the original play written by James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace (Claire Byun).

By Claire Byun

It’s a world of druids, of ogres, of a rebellious teenager on a mission to clear her father’s name. A world of political strife mixed with a missing amulet, giant birds that age in reverse and a dying queen to rule them all.

“The Spider Queen,” an original play produced and performed by the NOLA Project, opens Wednesday as the seventh production in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

The NOLA Project – a theatre company that performs classic and contemporary works, produces new plays and provides educational opportunities for theater artists – has performed in the garden every year for six years. The company started with a few Shakespeare classics and eventually shifted into more contemporary stories such as “Robin Hood” and “Don Quixote.”

This is the first all-original play performed in the garden.

“We’re just taking this really enormous, exciting swing,” said director Jon Greene.

Though “The Spider Queen” is a story all unto itself, it takes influences from a smorgasbord of fantasy realms; aspects from “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Goonies” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” all make an appearance during the two-hour show, Greene said. The play transports the audience back to their childhood stories of adventure, complete with large scale puppets, vivid masquerade, and extravagant costuming.

The show follows a rebellious teenager on a mission to clear her father’s name posthumously and a ne’er-do-well park ranger who just wants to maintain order find themselves accidentally thrust into a hidden realm full of fantasy creatures, nefarious villains, and a giant spider who rules the land.

“The Spider Queen” follows a rebellious teenager on a mission to clear her father’s name (Claire Byun).

“This whole play is about putting down our phones for a little while and getting away from the crunch of it all, getting back to reality – even though the play is based in fantasy,” Greene said.

When NOLA Project partnered with the New Orleans Museum of Art years ago, officials weren’t sure if the sculpture garden performances were going to be successful. A.J. Allegra, NOLA Project’s artistic director, said the group’s first performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was so popular the crew had to extend its run.

Now, seven years later, the garden’s plays are almost always extended due to popularity, Allegra said. So far about 1,000 tickets have been sold to “The Spider Queen,” and officials are hoping for another 1,500 attendees.

“[These shows] are a great way for us to show our work to a very large audience,” Allegra said. “It allows us to do immersive, site-specific theater.”

Some past plays, such as “Don Quixote,” were performed in a static space with the garden’s old large oaks as backdrop. Other performances required the audience to move around the garden for every new scene, thus changing the scenery with each act.

This year, “The Spider Queen” will be performed in the NOLA PRoject’s first-ever in-the-round staging. The garden has a large, open space near one of the back corners, encompassed by several large sculptures, which Greene said was made for performances just like this.

“When you look at this space, there is no other way left to use it,” Greene said.

The show’s puppets are a dazzling addition to the solid storytelling (Claire Byun).

Though all the garden-based performances had their own challenges – such as mosquitoes, termites and the sound of frog sex – working in-the-round has it’s own challenges, Allegra said. On a traditional stage, actors can be lit with flood lights behind the audience. A round stage cannot be lit by the same means, so lighting designer Alex Smith used four standalone lighting rigs around the stage.

Most of the cast wear elaborate masks – designed by Tony Fuemmeler – or exquisite costumes – by Hope Bennet – to transport the audience into a fantasy realm. Hebert Benjamin, who plays two fantasy characters, said this performance allows actors to “just losing yourself and becoming something bigger.”

“With this script, since it’s never been done before, you can decide what you want your character to do,” Benjamin said. “There’s not preconceived notions about how your character needs to act or their mannerisms, because it’s all new.”

Tickets for students and NOMA members are $18, and adult tickets are $25. Tickets can be ordered online.

If a production is called off due to inclement weather, attendees will be notified no later than 5 p.m. via email with instructions on selecting another date or requesting a refund.

All seating is bring-your-own chairs or blankets; blankets will be placed in front of all chairs for sightline purposes. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. for a 7 p.m. start time, and children under five are not permitted. There will be food trucks and a bar on site for food and drink purchases. No outside food or drink is allowed into the garden.

Show dates, which all start at 7 p.m. all days, are as scheduled:

-Wednesday, May 10
-Thursday, May 11
-Friday, May 12
-Sunday, May 14
-Wednesday, May 17
-Thursday, May 18
-Sunday, May 21
-Wednesday, May 24
-Thursday, May 25
-Friday, May 26
-Sunday May 28

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