Strange things are afoot at the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
In the fantasy world of “The Spider Queen,” a new work presented by the NOLA Project (through May 28), audiences embark on a mythical journey to another dimension, where all manner of magical creatures battle for power.
For many theatergoers, NOLA Project’s annual foray into the Bestoff Sculpture Garden has become a rite of spring. This year’s offering once again showcases what the company does best — an engaging, ensemble-driven work that offers a unique twist on the theatergoing experience.
Written by company members James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace, “The Spider Queen” is a complicated web of a play.
The opening scenes introduce two worlds. The first is unfamiliar territory, a fantasy realm ruled by a giant spider, Queen Octavia VIII, and governed by an eight-member council composed of knights, tree trolls, forest elves and druids. These denizens speak in an invented patois that lands somewhere between Chaucer’s Middle English and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, peppered with lots of “thee,” “thou” and “methinks.”
Closer to home, in a state park, a devastating fire has scorched the earth and claimed the life of a park ranger. The late park ranger’s rebellious, headstrong teenage daughter, Esme, suspects foul play, and she teams up with the eager, newly minted Ranger Clark to investigate.
When a magic amulet opens a portal in space, worlds collide, revealing a multidimensional tale of treachery and deceit.
The script, which includes nearly two dozen characters played by a cast of 14 performers, features too many twists and turns to give away here, but writers Bartelle and Wallace effectively manage the intersecting plotlines.
Under the direction of Jon Greene, the tightly told story engages every character, and the various narrative threads ensure that something is at stake in every scene, heightening the drama throughout.
Among the chaos, Esme emerges as the clear protagonist. Played by Becca Chapman, the character — with a shaved head, black boots and jean jacket —recalls both Eleven, the supernatural tween from the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” and Sigourney Weaver in “Alien 3.” Chapman effectively conveys youthful innocence and brash fearlessness as she finds herself embroiled in an otherworldly civil war.
The clashing factions are both led by fierce female warriors, the righteous St. Allyson of the Mountain and the duplicitous Valkyrja, played respectively by Monica R. Harris and Leslie Claverie in a pair of fiery performances.
As the evil villain returning from exile to usurp the Spider Queen’s rule, John Neisler is truly frightful, wielding his power with violence and vengeance
Esme’s sidekick, Ranger Clark (Jake Bartush) serves as a foil to Esme’s headlong recklessness and also interjects comic relief.
The magic of “The Spider Queen” is not only in the telling but also the showing.
In addition to an array of fantastical costumes by Hope Bennett, ranging from hardened battle gear to flowery elf wear, the characters are outfitted with impressively dramatic masks designed by mask maker Tony Fuemmeler.
The show also features wild creations from puppet maker Kenneth Thompson, including two oversized ogres, a fearsome dragon and the titular Spider Queen, an enormous arachnid that appears at the play’s climax.
The spectacle is rounded out by Alex Smith’s eerie light design and the inventive sound design of Glen Aucoin, whose musical compositions and sound effects rely solely on the vocal talents of the cast, singing and shouting from the wings.
It probably goes without saying that “The Spider Queen” requires a willingness to enter a world of strange sights and sounds, populated by odd creatures who pontificate in unusual syntax about the prophecies of the ancient scrolls. But even audiences who don’t know Bilbo Baggins from Prince Caspian will recognize the very human story of redemption at the heart of this fairy tale.
'The Spider Queen'
WHEN: Through May 28
WHERE: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins Diboll Circle
INFO: www.nolaproject.com or (504) 302-9117