On an icy Saturday night, cranes soared above the audience in Charity Randall Theater. Not real cranes, though — these cranes were of the kite variety.
The kites were just a few of the animal stand-ins featured by FLIGHT: A Crane’s Story, written and directed by Heather Henson, the daughter of Muppet creator Jim Henson. This earth-friendly puppet show, which ran in Pittsburgh Jan. 17-19, tells the tale of a whooping crane named Awaken.
Before hatching, Awaken is abandoned by her parents when a wind drift forces them to take flight. Left alone, Awaken must learn how to fly and live with the world around her. As she grows from a hatchling to a fully formed adult , she meets several different creatures, including Mother Earth and Wisdom Turtle, while also reuniting with her parents and learning about the value of the environment. (At one point, the narrator laments the pollution hiding the green and blue of the earth.)
Overlying this environmental theme is a wonderful, whimsical spectacle. Point Park University graduate Ashley Klinger twisted in brown and orange feathers as Mother Earth. Around her, four people, including Henson herself, manipulated puppets representing a frog, a dragon fly and a troupe of dancing crabs. While these creatures were fun to see, watching the kite handlers easily pivot around one another as they made cranes and butterflies come to life was perhaps even more entertaining.
In spite of its visual wonder, though, there seemed to be a disconnect between what the story claimed to be, and what actually happened on stage. Take, for example, the synopsis. According to the Ibex website, “it isn’t until Awaken listens to her own heart, consults her inner compass, and discovers her special gifts that she is able to rejoin her family. Together, the crane family is able to complete their annual journey again and again.”
Going into the show, I thought this meant that FLIGHT would center on Awaken’s self-discovery. That she would reunite with her parents only at the end, á la Homeward Bound. Instead, she seems to accomplish all this and join her parents again within the first 20inutes. Exactly how the reunion came about was confusing, since the narration was not always clear. In the narrative track playing over the scenes, a single voice filled multiple roles, describing the setting, addressing Awaken and providing dialogue for other characters.
Was the story complex enough to warrant multiple voices? Probably not. But cleaner writing would have enhanced what was otherwise a beautiful show.