The Great Migration

The Folger Theatre flies high with an adaptation of a 12th-century poem about the search for God

October 25, 2012
Director Aaron Posner says the costumes in “The Conference of the Birds” suggest birds “rather than try to be birds.”

If you think you’ve cracked the code of “The Conference of the Birds” the minute you figure out that the birds represent people, you’ve got a ways to go.

In his 12th-century work “The Conference of the Birds,” poet Farid Uddi Attar tells the story of a group of birds who leave their comfortable lives to search for their king, the Simorgh. To anyone who knows what an allegory is, it should be clear: This is about mankind’s search for God.

But the play’s about a lot more than that, says Dr. Michele Osherow, interim executive director of the Shakespeare Association of America. “It’s about human relationships,” she says. “It’s about divine relationships.”

Osherow serves as dramaturg (a play’s historical and cultural researcher) for the theatrical adaptation of “Conference of the Birds” now at the Folger Theatre. Director Aaron Posner uses music (by world-renowned percussionist Tom Teasley), dance and costumes to create the collection of bird pilgrims onstage.

“It’s a spiritual story, but it’s also a journey story,” Posner says. “It’s a very early road movie. It’s a bunch of birds off looking for God.” The menagerie encompasses peacock, partridge, nightingale and sparrow, each with its own accompanying fable, all supervised by the hoopoe bird (Patty Gallagher) in their journey across the earth seeking their fabled leader. If there’s a lead character, it’s the hoopoe, who interprets each story for the audience.

“Even though the hoopoe is giving us one interpretive train,” Osherow says, “we have to tell the story in such a way that people sitting in the audience can say ‘Yes, and?’ or “Yes, but …’ ”

Attar’s poem is more than a Persian “Canterbury Tales.” It’s a massive narrative work filled with digressions. There’s no way that two hours onstage can communicate the immensity of Attar’s undertaking. So, Posner and Osherow hope the play at least gives the audience a basic framework that will be reinterpreted and reimagined in thousands of brains.

“When you’re sending people into their own heads, you have no control of the stories that they may be telling themselves, and that can be unnerving,” Osherow says. “But it’s so clearly a spiritual journey that you almost have no other choice.”

Attar’s work is meant to teach you about humanity by forcing you to learn about yourself.

“If we’ve done that, if we’ve triggered people’s minds to want to engage with these stories, to toss them over and turn them inside out,” Osherow says, “then we’ve really done our job well.”

Backstory: “Attar’s use of figurative language places him as one of the masters of the Persian poetic tradition,” says Pardis Minuchehr, director of Persian Studies at George Washington University. Attar’s layers of meaning make it tough to compare him to a single Western author. Think “Paradise Lost” meets “The Canterbury Tales” and they have a really long allegorical baby.

Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE; through Nov. 25, $30-$68; 202-544-7077. (Capitol South)
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Marc Silver · October 25, 2012