BWW Review: AJIJAAK ON TURTLE ISLAND at FirstWorks
Ajijaak on Turtle Island alighted in Providence last week, treating the full house at Moses Brown School's Woodman Center to an imaginative, immersive-and at times participatory-puppet-based performance from Heather Henson's IBEX Puppetry.
Henson is daughter of the legendary puppeteer and creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson. This connection added just another layer of magic to an already mystical creation. And though the puppets were crafted in The Jim Henson's Creature ShopTM, there is nothing Muppet-like about them. Their graceful, ethereal presence is more evocative of "spirit animals" than any of the elder Hensen's familiar icons. In fact, Ajijaak's deer puppet materializes from elements of a birch forest, beautifully symbolizing the spirit of the woodland.
Henson co-directed the work with Ty Defoe, a Grammy winner, a member of the Ojibwe and Oneida Nations, and the author of the work.
Ajijaak on Turtle Island is a classic hero's journey, the story of a newly hatched whooping crane, Ajijaak, who becomes separated from her parents during a fire on the Alberta Tar Sands. Ajijaak must not only make her first migration from Canada to the Gulf coast alone, but also find a way to pacify the serpent spirit, who has become outraged over the mistreatment of the Earth. While Ajijaak on Turtle Island imparts a serious and urgent ecological message, its overall tone is positive, inclusive, and uplifting in the end.
Over the course of her journey along North America - the "Turtle Island" of the title - Ajijaak meets people and animals who help her complete her migration and help her to understand how she'll accomplish her greater mission.
The ensemble cast -Tony Enos, Joan Henry, Wren Jeng, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore, and Henu Josephine Tarrant -deftly operated the large, complicated puppets, often portraying multiple characters and giving each with distinct, compelling personalities.
As Grandmother, Joan Henry acts as the main storyteller for both the audience and the other actors, linking us with them, drawing us in with her natural warmth and magnificent singing voice.
Henu Josephine Tarrant skillfully guided the series of Ajijaak puppets, seamlessly changing them as the character grew and imbuing each with a maturing personality. Wren Jeng seemed to become one with the Coyote puppet in a charming, playful performance. As Queen of the Blue Crabs, Adelka Polak's manipulation of the many, many blue crab puppets created a moments of pure delight.
In addition to the inventive and endearing puppetry, Ajijaak featured original music and exquisite Native American dancing. The Men's Traditional Dance performed by Tony Enos as the character, Walks in Two Worlds, was particularly moving -danced as Ajijaak travels through the urban noise of the city. Sheldon Raymore's Grass Dance was simply stunning.
Ajijaak's stop in Providence is part of a four-city tour and it kicked off FirstWorks' 2019 season. It's clear that this beautifully crafted show, which debuted only last year, will go on to win hearts and fans for years to come. And although Ajijaak has moved on to the next city in its tour, New York, FirstWorks' 15th Anniversary season continues here in Providence on March 3 with the New England premiere of Some Favored Nook, an opera based on Emily Dickinson's correspondence; Black Violin on April 3; Complexions Contemporary Ballet's From Bach to Bowie on April 17; and finally the always thrilling and surprising, PVDFest, June 6-9. For more information, first-works.org.