Gentle, comforting, and playful, Hiawatha Project’s new play My Traveling Song is a whimsical exploration of the relationship between children and the people who care for them and keep them safe. (Readers may be interested to know that I serve on the advisory board of Hiawatha Project, but I was not involved in the development of this production).
The 45-minute performance, which was created collaboratively by an all-female team of designers and performers and directed by Anya Martin, centers on a mother (Monica Stephenson), her child (Heather Irwin), and a mischievous, impish character (played by Shani Banerjee) who introduces chaos into the mother’s attempts to help her daughter go to sleep. Mother and child embark on a journey of sorts, one that involves discovery, moments of magic, and a bit of danger in the form of a sudden thunderstorm. Eventually the journey ends – as such journeys are wont to do – with a return to the comforts of home.
The action takes place in a space that feels charmed and fairytale-like. Scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley has transformed Carnegie Stage into a cozy, immersive, blue-green world dominated by a large tree made of paper. Audience members sit in little “pods” – some on large cushions on the floor, others in the seats – that allow for parents and young ones to snuggle while they watch the show (blankets are also provided).
A number of special effect “surprises” hidden in the set make for moments of theatrical magic: wind chimes suddenly sound when the audience makes a big “SHHHHH!” sound, for example, or boxes placed in front of us on the floor spontaneously light up from the inside and invite us to explore and play with the tempting substance inside, or clouds and leaves suddenly descend from overhead. At the performance I attended, both young children and their adult minders were captivated by the show’s many moments of interactivity: playing with goopy sand, catching imaginary raindrops as they fell from an umbrella, and blowing hard to create a “wind” that could rouse the sleeping mother and daughter.
Video projections by Jess Medenbach make the show’s climactic rainstorm as well as other key moments come alive, and lighting and sound effects by Heather Graff and Liza Barley enhance the enchanting quality of the stage world. Nearly all of the dialogue is sung, with live musical accompaniment by Stephenson on the guitar and Banerjee on violin and xylophone; the songs are simple but catchy, and all three performers have lovely, easy voices that sooth and welcome.
While the primary audience for the play is the under-ten set, adults will also find much to connect with here, in particular the moments in which the show captures the frustrations and trials of parenting – for example, when the mother finds it impossible to disengage herself from her sleeping child without waking her up, or when the child blithely makes messes for her mother to clean up. And those who are still children – or are still in touch with their inner child – will be charmed by the show’s invitation to play, sing along, and go on a theatrical journey that (unlike most fairytales and children’s stories) doesn’t require leaving mom behind to have some fun and adventure.