“Nothing in the world is as amazing as something that is neither clear nor unclear,” marvels a member of director Aaron Posner’s dervish ensemble in The Conference of the Birds, now playing at the Folger Theatre. The production puts this claim to the test, leading audiences on a whirling, shape-shifting journey through the 12th century Sufi epic of the same name. And while mystical truth remains murky in this quest, the search is as rich and beautiful as a Persian tapestry.
The Conference of the Birds is an opulent mystery, inviting audiences on a journey far from traditional narrative and performance styles. The play is a joyful experiment in group storytelling, and a nimble balancing act between make-believe and mysticism. With its precise, expressive physical work and its entrancing design elements, this ensemble-based piece is an exciting complement to the Folger’s line-up of Shakespearean classics.
Adapted for the stage by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière in 1979, Farid Uddi Attar’s 4,500-line poem describes the journey undertaken by the birds of the world to seek their King, the mythical Simorgh—a beautiful and benevolent bird of Persian myth. To find him, the birds must travel over a vast stretch of deserts and valleys. In this journey laced with riddles and parables, the birds explore deep spiritual questions, reflecting the individual’s search for God. Spurred on in their quest by the Hoopoe (the wise and urgent Patty Gallagher), the birds are constantly tempted from their flight plan by human weaknesses including lust, greed, and a simple lack of motivation. (“I’ve a gold collar. My cage is all I need. I like my cage,” pleads the Parrot, played with fussy splendor by Robert Barry Fleming).
In its portrayal of a faith-based journey toward God, The Conference of the Birds expresses the core concepts of Sufism, the doctrines and practices of mystical Islam. Passed down within orders of adepts for centuries in Persia and across the Middle East, Sufism centers on the idea that only God exists—everything else in the universe is a shadow of the divine. Scholars are unsure about Attar’s exact relationship to Sufism, but its ideas are the focus of the poem.
The Hoopoe tells the birds that the Simorgh is “as radiant as the sun and he casts thousands of shadows on the earth. These shadows are birds.” In seeking the Simorgh, then, the birds are seeking a fundamental understanding of their place in the universe. Though these ideas come from a world distant to most DC theatergoers, they appear universal in the play’s simple language and imaginative staging.
Posner’s production is wary, however, to retreat fully behind his source material’s veil of colorful allegory. Rather than bright feathers, the actors wear pilgrims’ layered tunics and earth-tone shawls. Colored accent pieces identify a few species, but it is a challenge to tell the remaining birds apart. For instance, audience members unfamiliar with the Hoopoe have only Gallagher’s auburn bun as a subtle reference to the North African bird’s zebra-striped wings and orange crown (there’s a picture on the program cover). These more neutral outfits, however, keep focus on the story’s spiritual relevance for human audiences, and they keep the actors ready to leap into the show’s treasure chest of episodic fables.
With a somersault, and the addition of a cloak or beard, the birds become slaves, royalty, nomads, and thieves in a series of vignettes embellishing the central story of the birds’ search. In these sequences, the ensemble activates the creative power of Posner’s imaginative staging with evocative flair. Using only their bodies and a few unpainted crates, the actors conjure harems and forests with ease.
Drawing on the favorite Sufi technique of paradox, these stories explore love’s ability to transcend traditional hierarchies of power and probity. In one, a princess (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, who plays the Heron with equal long-legged grace) falls irresistibly in love with a slave (Jens Rasmussen, the earnest and innocent Magpie). With the help of a drug slipped into the unwitting slave’s wine, the princess is able to spend a night with him in secret. In the morning, the slave awakes and is driven mad by his blurred memories of ecstasy. Stories like these hum with esoteric truth, but their exact message is tantalizingly difficult to locate.
Granting no time for pondering, though, the birds flit back onstage. On land, the flock keeps in character through a series of cleverly avian twitches and hops. When flying, the birds soar toward their goal in a series of graceful flight sequences choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch.
Meghan Raham’s set elegantly echoes the nature of the birds’ journey: panels of tattered cloth hang like mendicant Sufi cloaks from the ceiling. Gaps in the threads show glimpses of an obscured truth, but never the full picture. Above the search, enthroned on a pile of drums, whistles, and other noisemakers sits Tom Teasley, king of noise, crowned in an orange fez. His expertise in a dizzying array of instruments turns the Folger’s Elizabeth stage into a portal to medieval Persia.
The actors also share in the music-making. The Nightingale (Annapurna Sriram, poignant romantic) turns a parable about love—it’s wasted on roses, which never smile— into a crooned folk tune. Britt Duff, the feisty Sparrow, strums another folk song on a ukelele that appears out of nowhere, as if by magic. In another number, the peacock (played with regal haughtiness by Jessica Frances Dukes) struts through the audience, boasting that she doesn’t need a King with colors like hers.
In their contemporaneity, the tunes graft uneasily onto the play’s otherwise timeless stem. Their folky, singer-songwriter qualities fit nicely with the actors’ organic storytelling but contrast sharply with Teasley’s evocative drumming. Sung and chanted nonsense words, meanwhile, as in the birds’ chattering complaints to the Hoopoe, nod to Peter Brook’s search for a universal language of performance, a quest which drove the original development of the play.
The Conference of the Birds
Closes November 25, 2012
201 East Capitol Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
1 hour 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $68
Tuesdays thru Sundays
A total break with Western convention is difficult in a traditional space with ticket stubs and blackouts, but Posner does succeed in leading the audience into a shimmering dream-space where mirages materialize, tempt, and vanish. The ensemble’s skilled movement work lends the piece an organic simplicity well-suited to the story’s timeless subject matter, while Teasley’s music and Jennifer Schriever’s lights usher audiences into a world of opulent myth. Ultimately, any deep truth at the play’s heart is hard to pin down, but that seems to be the point.
The Conference of the Birds is a mystic journey away from the familiar—and as Posner’s eleven birds reveal with captivating grace – there is a splendid truth in simply seeking.
The Conference of the Birds. Stage version by Jean-Clause Carrière and Peter Brook. Based on the poem by Farid Uddi Attar. Directed by Aaron Posner. Featuring Katie deBuys, Britt Duff, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jay Dunn, Robert Barry Fleming, Patty Gallagher, Tara Giordano, Mark Halpern, Celeste Jones, Jens Rasmussen, Annapurna Sriram, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, and Tom Teasley. Original music: Tom Teasley. Set design: Meghan Raham, Costumes: Olivera Gajic, Lighting: Jennifer Schriever, Sound design: Elisheba Ittoop, and Choreographer: Erika Chong Shuch. Produced by Folger Theatre. Reviewed by Robert Duffley.
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