By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
NEW ORLEANS – The NOLA Project began its tentative life as a New Orleans-based production company almost 15 years ago with The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh. This dark comedy staged days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall was part of the trilogy of plays that included The Lieutenant of Inishmoor, another play presented by the troupe in the post-Katrina rebuilding environment of the summer of 2007.
Another McDonagh vehicle championed by The NOLA Project was A Behanding in Spokane, which followed five years later and was the first American setting for one of his plays.
What it all boils down to is that The NOLA Project has a history and a proclivity for producing works of a darker nature intended to elicit laughter, while also keeping its audiences in suspense.
One of their favorite playwrights is Peter McElligott, an ensemble member who has contributed works such as Adventures in Wonderland (2014) and Don Quixote (2016), both of which were produced in cooperation with the New Orleans Museum of Art and presented outdoors at the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
McElligott loves to write roles for his fellow ensemble members that allow them to be larger than life. While not technically breaking the fourth wall between characters and the audience, McElligott does get right to the edge with his characters and allows the actors to have fun with their roles.
In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, currently playing at the outdoor venue on consecutive Wednesdays, Halloween and into November, McElligott mashes up four of Washington Irving’s popular, but macabre stories and presents them in a modern setting, ostensibly as part of a local production enacting his works.
The title of the overall work is, of course, named for his well-known horror story in which schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is chased by a headless horseman. Added to the mix are Irving’s funny take on “Rip van Winkle,” the hapless, unhappy husband who lies down beneath a spreading tree and goes to sleep for two decades; “The Devil and Tom Walker,” which pits “Old Scratch” against an avaricious, unhappy husband and “The Spectre Bridegroom” in which a nobleman is mistaken for a would-be groom (and, possibly, future unhappy husband).
In her debut as a director, ensemble funny lady, celebrated singer and award-winning actress Leslie Claverie, helms the project with a cast of six other actors led by her own husband Keith, who seemed pretty happy with her choices. Keith Claverie has won two recent Big Easy Awards himself for his recent roles and plays opposite one of The NOLA Project’s most recent ensemble member appointments, Anna Toujas.
Keith Claverie is hysterical as an over-the-top local performer, who is called at the last minute to be a fill-in for the role of narrator due to the unexpected deaths of several cast members (including his stage wife) as well as most of the supporting musicians from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The unfortunate and tragic circumstances were unwittingly unleashed when an incantation uttered on stage by one of the actors released the murderous ax-wielding figure who set about dispatching the players.
In a ghostly message received over his cell phone from his lately deceased stage wife, it is revealed that the murderous figure cannot be sent back into the void, whence he came, until the final scene is finished on stage. The small company of players and one survivor from the LPO (Trina Beck) endeavor to do just that.
Toujas, who has proven her comic skills in musicals like Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee had previous turns on The NOLA Project stages with The Spider Queen, Talkback and 4000 Miles. In this outing, she scores first as the actor playing Rip Van Winkle in the first act and later serves as a fallback performer in the second act when the curse is wreaking havoc on the players. Much of her interaction during the second act involves her working with what remains of the other performers.
Natalie Boyd also gives audiences much to be admired in her darkly comedic role as an actress who suffers loss of limb (but not necessarily life) in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. One of the most consistently talented performers with the company, Boyd is brash and proudly loud as she gives directions to surviving cast members on how to defeat the ax-wielding demon from the Underworld.
Two new actors to the company are Matthew Rigdon, who plays the stage manager for the doomed play in the first act and returns in the second act as the headless demon, and Maryam Fatima Foye, who portrays the play’s producer with her determined adage “The show must go on!”
Beck is especially funny as the flutist who survives the attack on the LPO and she uses her very real musical skills to add counterpoint to the action by the players that heightens the comedy in key scenes. A talented performer, Beck obviously enjoys working with The NOLA Project ensemble as she appeared in their previous productions of Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand and Romeo and Juliet.
James Yeargain, who has proved himself a top-flight actor in his own right, served Leslie Claverie as her assistant director. Megan Harms executed designs with assistance from Destinie Collins. With an outdoor venue, Mandi Wood had quite a task to light the sculpture gardens in a way that illuminated the actors and created the proper amount of ambience.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow continues at the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden on Wednesdays, October 23 and 30, Halloween night (Thursday, October 31), Sunday, November 3 and Wednesday, November 6 through Friday, November 8. The final performance is on Sunday, November 10. All performances are at 7:00 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here or call 504-302-9117.