As the young girl looks back at the empty space where she had been playing, her make-believe cape, a quilt, is still over her shoulders. But as the emptiness registers in a place once filled by her imagination, a desolate change takes place. Afterward, the child is no longer quite so much a child.
Not all of the 18 vignettes in the "Childhood" part of Paperhand Puppet Intervention's A Drop in the Bucket close as poignantly as this remembrance of serious, self-invented challenges and monsters by the sea. Gleeful accounts of forbidden, secret adolescent games also riddle the section. But always, in recollections transformed by imagination and wonder, adults look back at the worlds they once created and inhabited.
For one character, a single blue marble was all that was needed to imagine a fantastic underwater world parallel to our own. For another, stacks of papers in an aunt's basement became the repository of all the memories of everyone who ever lived, and the children became their custodians. Under Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman's fantastic puppet design, stage direction and choreography, these passages come to life in prismatic scenes—the first in an orbiting aquatic fantasia, the second animated by a cascade of flying papers.
"Childhood" reminds us of the high stakes and vivid realness of childhood play. We also recall the point Tennessee Williams made in The Glass Menagerie: that memories have a way of ambushing us. When we're faced with the fears, ideals and dreams of our childhood selves, we have the chance to assess the changes since then—and evaluate which ones were for the better and the worse.
There are other gentle confrontations in this far-reaching evening. The big-versus-small metaphor in "Tiny Town" is fleshed out by oversize gray grotesques that represent the disdainful powers that be in nearby Big City. They ignore, mock and fight the human-size inhabitants of Tiny Town until all of the puppeteers unmask to deliver their last lines as themselves. That plain disclosure has an unexpectedly powerful impact.
Narratives dealing with water and avian life seat this evening in the natural world. Puppeteer Zella Magoo leads a single raindrop through the ecosystem in "Life of a Drop of Water." And, appropriately, as nighttime descends, a procession of barred, horned and screech owl puppets find voices in Hope Wilder's "The Owl Song."
The rest of the music was written by music director Jennifer Curtis, whose original soundscape varies from tango to hoedown. Songs evoking the games and wishes of early youth form its most moving moments. "No one can see me," a diffident child intones in a haunting hide-and-seek section of "Childhood," before a forthright but beguiling narrator takes an inventory of our memories in a pensive final sequence.
All of this ably funds an evening of reunions with the self and the natural world, in one of Paperhand Puppet Intervention's most accomplished evenings ever. Strongly recommended.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dream a little dream."