Theater Review: “The Conference of the Birds” at Folger Theatre
A 12th-century fable makes for a creative and often mesmerizing spectacle.
Brave is the director who tries to take on Peter Brook. “The horror of someone trying to reproduce what I once did appalls me,” said the legendary British director last year, at the age of 85. But in The Conference of the Birds, currently playing at the Folger Theatre, director Aaron Posner doesn’t ape Brook so much as pay homage to him, and the result is a gorgeous, whirling, harmonious spectacle.
A 12th-century epic fable about a group of birds who set out on a quest for spiritual enlightenment (representing the mystical intentions of Sufism), Conference was adapted for the stage by Brook and Jane-Claude Carrière in 1979. The pair took the play to Africa, where its cast—including a young Helen Mirren—hoped to reinvent theater by presenting the show to audiences who had never seen it and had no preconceptions of what it should be. (They also later performed it in New York and Paris.) Posner has no such luck. Staged in the Folger’s immaculately historic surroundings, this Conference is less about breaking traditions (even if it’s a shift in style from the Folger’s usual programming) and more about having fun with the show and the opportunities it presents for movement and physicality.
Leading the birds on their journey to find the Simorgh, who they hope will represent transcendence, is the Hoopoe (Patty Gallagher), a composed and gravely intent cult leader of sorts who pulls the group out of their comfortable but meaningless lives. “You think you have the almond, but all you have is the shell,” she tells the parrot, comfortable in his cage. And to the peacock, strutting in his coat of many colors: “Your kingdom is hardly a drop in the ocean, so why not have the ocean?”
If this kind of New Agey mystical speak offends you, or feels tired in our era of bikram yoga and Deepak Chopra, it’s the least important part of the production. The story is really just an excuse for the actors to show off their skills, from timid sparrow Britt Duff’s gift with a ukelele to Celeste Jones (the Dove) and Jessica Frances Dukes’s (the Peacock) phenomenal singing voices. The cast sing one number with the resounding spirit of a church revival, and then shift tone completely toward a mesmerizing indie-tinged ballad when the Nightingale (Annapurna Sriram) begins her song.
Accompanying his own original compositions is Helen Hayes Award winner Tom Teasley, who sits, as usual, above the stage in his own bird’s nest of sorts and provides a cornucopia of different sound effects. His presence during the show is less prominent than in Constellation Theatre’s 2011 production of The Green Bird, during which he beatboxed, sawed, tapped, and plucked his way through the play as one of its most integral components, but the subtleties of his work in Conference are almost more rewarding. This is, above all, an ensemble piece, with each different element layered over another to create an absorbing whole.
Decked out in AllSaints-like hipster faux-rags by costume designer Olivera Gajic, and ducking their way in and out of a burlap-and-mirrors set by Meghan Raham, the actors sometimes look for all the world like post-apocalyptic survivors playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. But the minimally intrusive design elements allow the storytelling to shine, which it does through Posner’s creative, often funny direction and Erika Chong Shuch’s choreography. The Duck (Katie deBuys) wags her legs, the Magpie (Jens Rasmussen) cocks his head, and the Heron (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) stands proudly and elegantly aloof from the rest. When the birds fly together, through dark valleys and over long distances, there’s no suspension of disbelief necessary to see them as a flock of ascending creatures in flight.
Does the production reveal new spiritual truths or shine a light on the veiled mysteries of the human soul? Not really. But it’s a moving, effective, and entertaining testament to the potential of theater, which was presumably Posner’s intention all along.
The Conference of the Birds is at the Folger Theatre through November 25. Running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($30 to $68) are available through the Folger’s website.