Theater Review: “The Conference of the Birds” at Folger Theatre

A 12th-century fable makes for a creative and often mesmerizing spectacle.
An aerial view of the birds in flight in The Conference of the Birds. Photograph by Jeff Malet.
An aerial view of the birds in flight in The Conference of the Birds. Photograph by Jeff Malet.

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.

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