Folger Theatre The Conference of the BirdsBy Bob Ashby • Oct 29th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Washington DC
Through November 25th
1:45, with intermission
$30-$68 (plus fees)
Reviewed October 28th, 2012
Whatever its deeper meanings, Folger Theatre’s The Conference of the Birds, in a stage version by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere and directed by Aaron Posner, is a downright brilliant piece of theater. The key words are intricacy and precision. The main elements: Erika Chong Shuch’s choreography for the ensemble cast, involving a significant degree of coordinated group movement, unison breathing, hand gestures, and occasional bits of tumbling; Jennifer Schriever’s spectacularly detailed and varied lighting design; Tom Teasley’s music on multiple instruments. Each movement by the ensemble is perfectly, instantaneously timed with corresponding light cues and individual notes in Teasley’s music. The evening is one of virtuosic execution of a carefully conceived plan for presenting the story.
The story, based on a 12th century Sufi poem written by Farid Uddi Attar, is a mythic quest, deep in Joseph Campbell territory. Led by the Hoopoe (Patty Gallagher), the 10-strong ensemble, representing all the other birds, debate how to deal with their uncertainties and dissatisfactions by seeking their true king, Simorgh. The “conference” of the title takes place in the first act. The Hoopoe tries to persuade the other birds to begin the quest. Many of the other birds demur. The Parrot (Robert Barry Fleming) is comfortable in his cage; the Duck (Katie deBuys) is reluctant to leave the comfortable water in her pond; the Falcon (Jay Dunn) wishes to remain with his king; the Sparrow (Britt Duff) is too timid to take a dangerous journey, etc. The Hoopoe responds primarily by telling stories. To the Falcon, for example, she recounts a series of stories in which kings arbitrarily kill their devotees. Ultimately the Hoopoe – the narrator as well as the leader of the flock – succeeds in persuading the others to leave their fears and comforts behind and undertake the journey.
As befits a mythic quest, the journey is long and arduous, involving a wide desert and seven valleys (representing various emotional and existential states — quest, love, unity, astonishment, etc.) through which the birds must pass, each with its own challenges and its own meanings to decipher. Many fall short: the 30 that succeed learn that Simorgh is not a separate being (no Wizard at the end of these birds’ Yellow Brick Road), but within themselves (indeed, “Simorgh” is a Persian pun for “30 birds”). As one commentator put it, “By annihilating themselves gloriously in the [Simorgh] they find themselves in joy, learn the secrets, and receive immortality. So long as you do not realize your nothingness and do not renounce your self-pride, vanity, and self-love, you will not reach the heights of immortality. Attar concluded the epilog with the admonition that if you wish to find the ocean of your soul, then die to all your old life and then keep silent.”
In keeping with the superb stagecraft of the production, the burlap curtains that are a key part of Meghan Rahm’s set design part at the play’s conclusion to reveal a mirror in which the birds see themselves. Given the allegorical nature of the work – these are human emotions and a human spiritual quest we are dealing with, after all — Olivera Gajic’s costume design makes no attempt to make the cast look like birds. The subdued palate emphasizing greys, browns, and greens never calls attention to itself (save one disco queen-like costume for a peacock) and perfectly complements the movement and lighting of the production.
The members of the ensemble cast do it all – move, speak clearly and in character, sing on some occasions – and most of all do it in perfect harmony with one another. Regardless of how much Sufi mysticism of a millennium ago may or may not resonate with a Washington audience of today, the presentation of Attar’s story at the Folger can only inspire admiration.
If you’re not a theatre geek, perhaps you don’t know about Peter Brook, but Peter Brook — the co-adaptor and instigator of this play — is perhaps one of the most innovative and influential theatre artists of the last 60 years. I first read Peter Brook’s theatrical manifesto, “The Empty Space,” in high school. I was just getting serious about theater and I really appreciated the clarity, insight, and inspiration. It called for theater to be “Immediate, Rough, and Holy,” which I utterly loved. It held up Shakespeare (whom I already loved) as the greatest example. And it warned of “Deadly Theatre,” which I already knew I really wanted to avoid…
I then read as much as I could by and about Brook, which led me to The Conference of the Birds. I’ve loved it ever since. I love its beauty and wisdom. It is abstract and provocative. I didn’t fully understand it when I first read it, and I still don’t… but at the same time, it continues to grow and evolve for me. It has always spoken to me, whatever is going on in my life.
Exploring this play — delving into any “wisdom literature”, perhaps — means dealing with what our cast has already come to call “the real stuff” — the big, complex, core questions of our lives. “The real stuff” is usually messy and confusing, however, so most of us don’t give it permission to rise to the surface very often. But one wonderful thing that plays can do is help us take a moment out of our busy lives to explore our “real stuff” in new and different ways…
The story is simple. Led by an urgent and insistent Hoopoe, an assortment of birds leave their quotidian lives on a quest to find their true King, the Simorgh. It is based on an extraordinary Persian poem written nearly 1000 years ago to illuminate the soul of Sufism. What I think I love about it the most is that what you take away from it depends largely on what you willing to bring to it. If you’re willing to bring your “real stuff” to the table — well, then there’s no telling what kind of journey you might take along with this assortment of odd and esoteric birds.
And speaking of bringing “real stuff” to the table… I would like to take a moment to thank this extraordinary cast for their courage, imagination, and generosity. This production is a true collaborative effort, and the cast, staff, creative team, artists and assistants are all playing a huge role in figuring out how best to tell this story, at this moment, in this space… to you.
This production is dedicated to Peter Brook. His passion, insight, and wisdom everyone who makes theater — or sees it — would be much poorer. It is also dedicated to all theater artists, here and everywhere, who toil in the creative fields to bring forth a worthwhile harvest. It is a great job, but it is not an easy one, and I am always moved and amazed by the tremendous passion and sheer creative energy that theater artists muster — and share — every single day.
Thank you so much for being here. Now sit up, lean forward, get ready to look outward and inward, and prepare yourself for the flight ahead. Who knows where we’ll end up…
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Duck: Katie deBuys
- Sparrow: Britt Duff
- Peacock: Jessica Frances Dukes
- Falcon: Jay Dunn
- Parrot: Robert Barry Fleming
- Hoopoe: Patty Gallagher
- Partridge: Tara Giordano
- Dove: Celeste Jones
- Magpie: Jens Rasmussen
- Nightingale: Annapurna Sriram
- Heron: Tiffany Rachelle Stewart
- Musician: Tom Teasley
- Director: Aaron Posner
- Assistant Director: Marie Sproul
- Assistant to the Director: Robert Lutfy
- Original Music/Sound Design: Tom Teasley
- Elisheba Ittoop; Associate Sound Designer
- Sound Head: Matthew M. Nielson
- Sound Board Operator: Brandon Roe
- Scenic Designer: Meghan Raham
- Scenic Assistant: Brooke Robbins
- Scenery Construction: Bella Facia, Inc.
- Costume Designer: Olivera Gajic
- Costume Assistant/Wardrobe Head: Adalia Vera Tonneyck
- Costume Assistant/Sticher: Ananda Keator
- Lighting Designer: Jennifer Schriever
- Choreographer: Erika Chong Shuch
- Dance Captain: Jens Rasmussen
- Master Electrician: Aaron Waxman
- Light Board Operator: John Rose-Caron
- Resident Dramaturg: Michele Osherow
- Dramaturg Assistant: Annalisa Dias-Mandoly
- Production Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
- Production Assistant: James Kramer
- Assistant Stage Manager: Alicia Sells
- Assistant Technical Director: Rebekah Sheffer
- Prop Master: Samina Vieth
- Casting Assistant: Theresa Wood
- Promotional Photography: James Kegley
- Production Photography: Scott Suchman
- Promotional Video: Heather Daniels, Mark Fastoso, and APTV
- Open Captioning: C2
- The Nightingale Song: Annapurna Sriram
- The Valley of Love Song: Britt Duff
Disclaimer: Folger Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8805.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.