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Review: The NOLA Project stages The Spider Queen

The group presents an imaginative story in City Park

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The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park is enchanting even without the appearance of super-sized puppets, medieval costumes, trolls, elves, druids and a minotaur. So, as The NOLA Project introduces a cast of fantastic creatures and lighting effects in its original production, The Spider Queen, audience members' imaginations ignite. The characters and action are thrillingly close to spectators seated in the round, and lighting and sound effects enhance the story's illusion.

  Company members and playwrights James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace weave a story about a teenager who searches for the truth regarding the death of her father and accidentally discovers a mysterious, secret world. Esme (Becca Chapman) implores a park ranger (Jake Bartush) to help her make sense of the final events in an arson investigation, and the pair plunge through a portal in a netherworld populated by villains and beasts and ruled by a giant spider, Queen Octavia VIII.

  Chanting and Old English give the play a medieval feel, and an energetic sprite, Petal (Anna Toujas), is Shakespearean in her jesterlike costume and antics. Chapman and Bartush are breathlessly excited, navigating the two universes with wonder and trepidation.

  Bartelle and Wallace were inspired by themes from familiar tales, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Labyrinth, to spin their story and create a fantasy realm, but they stumble in trying to create a coherent narrative. Reminiscent of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which portrayed lovers and actors confusedly wandering in a forest ruled by fairies, The Spider Queen concludes without the pleasure of Shakespeare's satisfying moral.

  Nevertheless, The Spider Queen is a visually effective endeavor. When director Jon Greene first read the script, he imagined actors donning masks, he says. As a youth, Greene performed with an Italian troupe on street corners and in public squares doing an improvised form of theater known as commedia dell'arte. He perceived The Spider Queen as epic, Renaissance storytelling, which lent itself to puppetry and masks. Greene engaged Portland, Oregon mask-maker Tony Fuemmeler, who previously had created masks for theater. "Wearing a mask changes the way you move your body," Fuemmeler says. "A mask must allow an actor to show emotion, breathe or do combat."

  Greene had the ensemble wear their masks from the first rehearsal. The actor must forget the mask is on his face so the audience forgets, too, Greene says. "There is no such thing as method acting in a mask."

  Costume designer Hope Bennett enlarged characters' outfits after she saw the masks. Bennett collaborated with Kenneth Thompson of K Studios, a Northshore-based set designer, who sculpted huge, mythic creatures, including 8-foot-tall ogres and a 20-foot-wide spider, from lightweight, hand-painted insulation and upholstery foam.

  "The puppets help transport the audience into that world," Thompson says.

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