In Ajijaak on Turtle Island, chicks are hatched, buffalo dance, and butterflies flutter overhead to the delight of young theater-goers. The multimedia piece is the creation of Heather Henson in collaboration with an array of First Nations performers and her famed father Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Storytelling is imparted through song, dance, and projections in addition to the expected marvelous marionettes.
A synopsis is included in the program and should be shared with children before the curtain rises to help them get the most from the experience. We are on Turtle Island — now known as North America — at a time when animals could talk to one another. A young whooping crane named Ajijaak has been separated from her parents during a fire. Her journey to find them on the Gulf Coast puts her in touch with deer, buffalo, coyotes, crabs and a few two-legged beings. Each interaction teaches her something valuable and contributes to her “medicine bundle.” These lessons will help her heal the world when the time comes to confront Mishibizhiw, the violent creature who is awakened from sleep whenever the earth is being exploited.
The visuals are quite stunning and work in harmony. Multimedia images of nature are combined with music and movement in support of the environmental message. Indigenous pieces by Dawn Avery & Larry Mitchell, Kevin Tarrant and Ty Defoe are punctuated by two drummer/chanters along with conventional instruments. The script — also by Ty Defoe based on a story by Heather Henson — is episodic, as is typical of a work geared to children. The narrative breaks down in spots and some of the dialogue is stilted. These weakness are largely overcome by the charm and warmth of the narrator Grandma Moon as embodied by Joan Henry. Mishibizhiw’s entrance happens without an inciting incident, which seems a lost opportunity to really hit home the overarching theme. A highlight comes shortly after when the audience participates in the unique song meant to restore balance to the world. It is a tune you will hear little voices continuing to sing throughout your walk to the subway, briefly pushing Baby Shark to the back of your mind.
Complementing Ms. Henry is Henu Josephine Tarrant who gives Ajijaak a soaring angelic voice worthy of a bird. The remainder of the performers — Tony Enos, Wren Jeng, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore — are uneven in skill, but all provide enthusiasm and heartwarming interaction with the audience. Dancers Jake Montanaro, Jennifer Sanchez, Euni Shim and Dormeshia Ward fill the background and theater aisles, uplifting spirits, sometimes with the aid of kites representing, birds, butterflies and such. Traditional dances choreographed and performed by Tarrant, Raymore and Enos add spark and authenticity.
The set by Christopher and Justin Swader features six drum heads representing the heartbeat of Turtle Island. These also function as screens for the dramatic projections designed by Katherine Freer. Rather than the all-black garb favored by most puppeteers, these artists sport bright colors in their wardrobe designed by Lux Haac with some pieces by Donna Zakowska. This is in keeping with the cultural roots of the characters and plays up the relationship between the animals and their handlers.
Presented by Ibex Puppetry, an entertainment company founded by Heather Henson that creates spectacles promoting themes in support of a healthy planet, Ajijaak on Turtle Island is intended as family entertainment. Adults firmly in touch with their inner child should find enough to engage with here. The recommended age is 7 and up, though I saw many pre-schoolers in attendance.. Your child should be able to sit still for 75 minutes, not interfere with performers in the aisles, and hold questions until the curtain falls. There is an opportunity for them to participate in support of Aijijaak in the way past generations clapped in order to keep Tinkerbell alive. Performances run through March 10 at the New Victory Theater. For information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org.