A Midsummer Night's Dream, the NOLA Project's first Shakespeare production presented in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in May 2011, was a huge success. The company reprised the show that fall, and it also coined a new term and production value for the young company: a gondola moment.
In the comedy of yearning lovers and mistaken identity, the final act involves a play within the play, in which a crew of buffoonish characters put on a show as entertainment at the weddings of two royal couples. In the sculpture garden, director Andrew Larimer staged the scene across the lagoon, with the audience spread around the water's edge, watching the players on the elevated perch holding a sculpture. As the scene started, the two royal couples entered on a large Venetian-style gondola to watch the play along with the rest of the audience.
"Every night when the gondola came out, you could hear a gasp," says NOLA Project artistic director and actor A.J. Allegra. "Now with every play, we ask, 'Is there a gondola moment? Can we find a gondola moment?'"
It's a hard feat to reproduce given the unique space and equipment the garden offered for Midsummer. But the NOLA Project has made the most of several spaces at New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in recent years. It has presented five plays inside NOMA or the sculpture garden, and it's now making a spring production in the garden an annual event.
"Once Jazz Fest is over, there's a lull," Allegra says. "It isn't obvious what the next big thing is. ... The best thing we can do in New Orleans is turn something into a tradition."
Last spring, the NOLA Project mounted As You Like It. This week, it opens Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
The idea to stage Much Ado came from director Jason Kirkpatrick, who played Oberon in Midsummer. He and Allegra both teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). One day, he shared an idea he had about reading Much Ado About Nothing in the Hollywood-style Southern accents of Gone With the Wind and Disney's Song of the South. All the lilts and drawls fit the play's comic romance very well.
"When I was in college in a design class, we had an assignment to take a play and conceptualize it," Kirkpatrick says. "I took the accents from Song of the South and it sounded really beautiful. And there's the character of the South — the gentility and manners."
Allegra says the treatment also kept the play very accessible.
"The lines are strangely comprehensible this way," he says. "We want these shows to be accessible to people who might have trepidations about Shakespeare."
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about two couples' plights. Claudio and Hero fall instantly in love and their marriage seems inevitable. Benedick and Beatrice are longtime acquaintances engaged in an ongoing battle of wits, and Benedick swears he will never marry. The play's villain, Don John, is not happy and enlists friends and family to meddle with the couples, planting rumors of all sorts — both to separate Claudia and Hero and to trick Benedick and Beatrice into being together.
"It starts off with light comedy and (Benedick and Beatrice's) battle of the sexes," Kirkpatrick says. "It's sweet, and then it turns cruel, and there's some melodrama mixed in."
Kirkpatrick set the play in the South, literally in front of a colonnade under grand oak trees, but he was leery of associations with the Civil War. The costumes reflect some style of plantation life, but the period is set closer to the turn of the 20th century. Some dances have been choreographed to the period. But he's also let the ensemble generate ideas.
"It's been fun to watch the actors run around the park and make up bits," he says.
Alex Martinez Wallace's Don John is particularly dastardly, and Kathlyn Tarwater's Beatrice is a forceful steel magnolia. Constable Dogberry and his assistant Verges offer comic relief in the vein of bumbling Southern cops.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the action was spread throughout the garden and the audience moved twice to different areas. As You Like It also moved a bit, but Much Ado takes place in the oak grove. There's more props and fixed lighting in the production and it's not as interactive as the prior two shows.
Enthusiasm for the garden shows has made both the NOLA Project and NOMA look to schedule a performance annually, Allegra says.
The first play the NOLA Project staged at the museum was Moliere's The Misanthrope in July 2006. In 2011, the company pitched two ideas to the museum: a production of Romeo and Juliet inside the entrance hall and Midsummer in the sculpture garden. Eventually, it did both shows. It also presented Yasmina Reza's Art in Stern Auditorium. The company has already picked a show for spring 2014, and it will be announced along with the rest of the 2013-2014 schedule in late May.