Folger’s ‘Conference of the Birds’ is poetry in motion

October 30, 2012

The magic that director Aaron Posner creates onstage in “The Conference of the Birds” began not in rehearsal but in auditions. That’s where the director, who gained fame locally with his 2008 magic-show-style “Macbeth,” must have posed questions like, “Can you do a split?” “How are your flatulent noises?” and “Any chance you can strum the ukulele and sing like Ingrid Michaelson?”

How else could he have ended up with this talented cast of athletic actor-dancer-vocalists?

“Birds,” which opened Sunday, is a beautiful mash-up of music, physical theater, pop-culture allusions and ancient Persian poetry. It is not, in its own right, a profoundly memorable play. But it is a stunningly creative example of how to adapt an Eastern epic for a contemporary Western stage, in league with Mary Zimmerman’s imaginative classics such as “Metamorphoses” and “The Odyssey.” The “Birds” script — performed at the Folger with a few tweaks — is a 1979 effort by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere, as derived from Farid Uddi Attar’s 12th-century poem. Brook, one of Europe’s most influential directors, has long been fascinated by Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the unity of God and nature. “The Conference of the Birds” follows a flock in search of a mythical king called the Simorgh. Along the way, the travelers confront hermits and dervishes.

Posner’s conceptual genius starts with the titular conference, and the fact that there’s not a feather in sight. Olivera Gajic has dressed the actors a bit like Takoma Park hippies, in layers of earth-tone scarves and Tencel tunics. Each actor plays at least one bird throughout the show — a parrot, partridge and falcon predominate. Yet the leader of Brook’s peripatetic flock is not a powerful raptor but a hoopoe, a Eurasian cousin of the kingfisher.

Patty Gallagher leads the cast as the hoopoe, who is part guru, part narrator, part onstage yoga instructor. Loops of strawberry blond hair echo the orange crest of her ornithological character, and while the effort is worth it, the body language is even more fascinating than the complicated coiffure. No funky-chicken elbow moves here. The birds move their necks and shoulders in minuscule twitches and dart their eyes as if silently chirping. When they fly, the performers lift and support one another as well as any modern dance company. And then there are the breakout moments when each species gets into pop-culture character. Peacock Jessica Frances Dukes belts soulfully as she struts down the Folger’s center aisle displaying her coat of 10,000 colors. As the nightingale, Annapurna Sriram sings of sorrows and roses and self-reflection like a public-radio indie-pop star. She later passes the ukulele on to Britt Duff, the sparrow, who mourns her frailty and warbles like Jolie Holland.

Underscoring all this singing and dialogue is Washington musician Tom Teasley, who won a Helen Hayes Award for his performance last year in Constellation Theatre’s “The Ramayana.” Promoted to the Folger’s balcony, he plays a mix of 15 traditional and contemporary instruments, ranging from the kamancheh to the mouth organ. The Folger is known for integrating live music into shows, with mixed success, but what’s noticeable here is that Teasley is so unnoticeable, producing just the right percussive and string-instrument sounds to complement the action.

Of course, many noises the actors produce themselves, including collective farting and tapping out rhythms on four cajon box drums. For a 4,500-line poem, the action is frenetic. The plot, such as it is, follows the birds as they journey across a great desert and through seven valleys of mystery. More than a dozen fables are knitted into the central story, and with a rattle of drums and rapid shifts in movement, the metanarrative is never muddy. The most beautifully rendered allegory finds Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, the heron, stripping down to a brocade bra and portraying a princess who sleeps with a drugged slave one fateful night, then awakens not knowing if the love was real or a dream.

Mystery and self-discovery are the main themes here, which lend themselves well to theatrical meanderings but not conclusive endings. The closing chant, after the birds find the Simorgh and burlap curtains are pulled back to reveal a dazzling mirror, seems more like self-help cheerleading than Sufism. Something about the sun, the mirror and seeing your soul in your body. The ­Simorgh told the birds these things, the hoopoe tells us, without using words. In a show worth seeing for its movement, music and imagery, a little kooky dialogue should be forgotten, like a swirl of dust in the desert.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

The Conferenceof the Birds

by Peter Brook and Jean­-Claude Carriere. Based on the poem by Farid Uddi Attar. Directed by Aaron Posner. Sets, Meghan Raham; costumes, Olivera Gajic; lighting, Jennifer Schriever; original score and sound design, Tom Teasley. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 22 at Folger Theatre,
201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit www.folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.

Annapurna Sriram sings "The Nightingale Song" in "The Conference of the Birds" at Folger Theatre. (Scott Suchman/SCOTT SUCHMAN)

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