Theatre Review: ‘Conference of the Birds’ at Folger Theatre

The cast of ‘Birds.’ Photo courtesy of Folger Theatre.

In the 13th century the Catholic Church, an opponent of drama and its lusty spectacles since the days of the 3rd century theologian Tertullian (whose near Ayatollah-like rants against public amusement will surely earn him a spot on a future Homer Simpson episode), broke its theatrical prohibition and allowed Franciscan and Dominican missionaries to spread the gospel through storytelling. The leap from storytelling to theatre is but a hop and a skip, and theatre’s revival throughout Europe began, albeit didactically.

Although theatre in the Muslim world was not prohibited, Islamic strictures against representation, and hence spectacle, generated similar tensions. As a result, poetry, which is focused on the word and not the body, spread rapidly, and with music, became the Muslim world’s most popular artistic medium.

The Folger Theatre’s Washington area premiere of Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière’s stage-adaptation of Farid Uddi Attar’s master poem, The Conference of the Birds, captures that sense of the sublime. Without being overly didactic or dogmatic, its theatrical story offers its audience the unique opportunity to go on a spiritual adventure.

Jay Dunn, Robert Barry Fleming, and Britt Duff. Photo courtesy of Folger Theatre.

Yes, The Conference of the Birds is an unabashedly sacred tale with no mythical land of Narnia or magical sovereigns like the Wizard of Oz or Voldemort to distract our focus. Rather, these birds and their oh so human foibles begin their journey with clear intent: to find their one true king, Simorgh, and in so doing overcome the discord of the world. Their king, they learn, lives somewhere beyond the seven valleys and, unlike more earthly kings, Simorgh won’t cut off a subject’s head for answering a question incorrectly.

And then there was music. Even before the play began, composer Tom Teasley enchanted us with an wondrous array of percussion instruments and original compositions that skillfully blended the intonations of the ancient with the rhythms of the modern. His music transported us to the poetic shores of Persia without being solemnized by the exoticism of it. We were restrained.

Helping hold us in check was the scenic design by Meghan Raham. On the one hand mirrored surfaces reflected back at us images of ourselves. On the other, large burlap sculptural banners hung from the mirrored columns. These expressionistic designs defied representation, being textured landscapes invoking geography and poverty more than symbol.

When the birds finally assembled on stage we were once again struck by the restraint—but not in the casting. A visually dynamic cast of birds had assembled: this was indeed a conference of the world’s birds, and they were indeed fed up with its condition. No, we saw the restraint in their visualization.

To be sure, birds offer a costumer’s imagination a vast palette of possibilities, particularly when you have such a wide variety of species to choose from: falcon, sparrow, owl, peacock, partridge, nightingale, duck, parrot, hoopoe, dove, magpie, heron. For some reason, however, these feathered creatures were muted and toned down, almost as if—following the warning of the church fathers—someone feared that audiences might be bedazzled by the spectacle of it all and miss the message.

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Indeed, because of this visual restraint, the challenge of this production lay entirely on the shoulders of the production’s performers, as narrators, actors, singers, dancers, musicians, and movers. Their job, it seems, was not so much to entertain us but, as the hoopoe did them, guide us through the spiritual terrain of the play. They would be aided by designer Jennifer Schriever’s lights, which not only cast many of the ensemble’s more dynamic tableaus in a memorable light, but also by the sudden transitions those lights provided. For the most part, however, with no grand spectacle to assist them, the ensemble would have to rely on the details of character and performance to carry us through to the play’s conclusion.

…offers its audience the unique opportunity to go on a spiritual adventure.

For the most part, this flock of strange fowl put in a strong performance, engaging us in splendid details, from the shimmering of duck’s feathers (played by Katie deBuys) to the immaculate head movements of falcon (played by Jay Dunn). Tara Giordano’s partridge seized our imaginations each time she waddled across the stage, and the adorable jitters of Britt Duff’s sparrow, plus her stunningly simple rendition of love, held our attention each time she wanted to take flight. And I have to mention the mesmerizing presence of Tiffany Rachelle Stewart’s heron; indeed, when Stewart portrays the princess in love with the slave, played with comic good sense by Jens Rasmussen, the two quickly and effectively shift the play into a sizzle of romantic images.

Katie deBuys and Jens Rasmussen. Photo courtesy of Folger Theatre.

The most difficult role in The Conference of the Birds is that of the hoopoe, however, played by Patty Gallagher. Like Virgil in Dante’s Comedy, she has to guide her spiritual yearners, being optimistic when necessary yet clear and stern when needed. She more than any character also has to act as liaison between the audience with its modern sensibility and this 12th century Sufi poem that speaks of a transcendental reality which most westerners might know only if they’ve spent years exploring Jungian psychology. Ms. Gallagher does well embodying the encouraging mother figure to this tribe of feathers; but when this chick or that hen struggles too vociferously against the way, she resorts too frequently to the choices of a harried schoolteacher.

A part of her struggle seemed to be with the text itself, which came across as too flat in places. The first act is particularly difficult as it focuses on the birds’ fears and their resulting loss of faith in the journey. Director Aaron Posner’s sense of the pictorial is strong, but he needed to find more variety in the birds’ choices when it came to their resistance to the trek and to the hoopoe’s way of rallying them.

These first act missteps do not take the vitality away from the splendor of this epic journey of enlightenment, however; and Peter Brook’s work in the modern theatre is well represented here. We cannot be reminded too often of the fact that if theatre cannot achieve a purpose greater than entertainment, then it will not long serve any purpose at all, other than as an amusement for today’s equivalent to the kings and queens of yesterday. Brook has spent a good portion of his theatrical life seeking to lend theatre that larger function, as an organizer of community across regional and national boundaries. The Conference of the Birds is a fantastic vehicle for this type of cross-border work, and the Folger’s production is well worth the enlightenment.

Running Time: 85 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: this show is for seekers of truth of all ages.

The Conference of the Birds plays at the Folger Theatre through November 25, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC. For tickets call 202.544.4600 or click here.

About Robert Michael Oliver

An educator, playwright, theatre artist, and poet, Robert Michael Oliver has lived an eclectic life since moving to Washington 30 years ago after earning his MFA in Directing from Virginia Tech. Co-founder of DC’s Sanctuary Theatre, Michael served as its artistic director through the early 1990s. He then worked at The New School of Northern Virginia as High School Director and Director of its theatre program. Now, with both his children independent, young adults, and after earning his doctorate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland in 2005, he has recommitted himself to the arts. In 2010 he began the Sanctuary’s Performing Knowledge Project. Its one-man show, “Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance,” which Michael wrote and performed, premiered at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. A long time participant in Washington’s theatre scene, he was delighted to be the Editor, DC Metro area for the Maryland Theatre Guide for a few years.