Editors' pick

The Conference of the Birds

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Editorial Review

Folger’s ‘Birds’ soar as physical specimens
By Rebecca Ritzel
Thursday, November 1, 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.

PREVIEW: These birds talk to Teasley’s beat
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, October 19, 2012

Musician Tom Teasley doesn’t intentionally seek out plays that feature talking birds. It’s happenstance, the percussionist insists, that after providing accompaniment for Constellation Theatre’s “Metamorphoses,” “Green Bird” and “The Ramayana,” he’s teaming up with Aaron Posner and Folger Theatre for another show in which birds do more than squawk and warble.

The Conference of the Birds” is a fantastical, lyrical tale populated by a hoopoe, a falcon and a sparrow, among other winged creatures, and all have plenty to say during a painstaking pilgrimage to find their king.

When looking back at his stage collaborations -- for which Teasley has garnered two Helen Hayes Awards -- he admits to a couple of less coincidental common threads. “Conference,” like his other theatrical work, is a multilayered production about a grand, life-altering voyage.

“There’s an adventure story on the surface and then within that are parables, and you can just peel away the onion layers of skin to go deeper and deeper into it,” he says. “So the story is about a journey, both literally and figuratively.”

Survey Teasley’s professional progression and it’s easy to see why the winding-path theme might appeal to him. While visiting New Orleans, touring with a rhythm and blues band, he was exposed to music from Africa and the Caribbean, and his ensuing global interest led to a post as a cultural envoy for the State Department. In that capacity, he has traveled over the past four years to Bahrain, New Zealand and the West Bank. He has worked with fire dancers in Samoa and donned a helmet and flak jacket to perform for children in Iraq.

“I’m not used to flying to gigs on a helicopter, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world,” Teasley says. “It made me have a deeper connection with what music can do and the power of music to communicate.”

All of the globe-trotting informs his work on “The Conference of the Birds.” Jean-Claude Carriere and Peter Brook’s play is based on a Persian poem by Farid Uddi Attar, yet the 15 or so instruments Teasley plays (many simultaneously) hail from all over the world. Onstage, he is surrounded by a djembe drum from Africa, a single-stringed instrument from India and a melodica, a keyboard activated by blown air used in music education in the Far East.

To add another layer, Teasley’s execution is multicultural. For example, on the Irish frame drum called a bodhran, he uses techniques from ancient Mesopotamia, India, southern Italy and even flamenco guitar strokes.

“Techniques from one part of the world work just great on an instrument from another part,” he says.

Teasley’s path into the theater world, as with some of his career moves, was a chance detour. Constellation’s artistic director, Allison Stockman, stumbled upon his music five years ago and asked him to work on “Arabian Nights.” Since then he has become a fixture in the company’s productions. He has performed onstage during multiple productions, even entertaining audience members as they filed into the theater. (He’ll also be performing for about 10 minutes before “Conference,” so arrive early for a little show before the show.)

“Conference” is the first time Teasley has worked with Posner; it took the director about three minutes at the musician’s studio to realize he wanted Teasley onboard.

It wasn’t just the percussionist’s musical talents that appealed to Posner. “There was a kind of energy, a kind of positivity, a kind of searching quality, if you will, even a kind of fanaticism that I was interested in for this world,” Posner says. “Tom is a true lover of what he does and of the world in which he inhabits. He is rigorous, he is passionate, he is deeply knowledgeable. So it just became clear that this was someone I needed as part of this production.”

Teasley was equally excited about the opportunity after reading the script.

“It really is one of these things where when you read it once, you haven’t even scratched the surface,” he says. “I got an idea that this would be something that seemed like it would be a good fit for me.”

Teasley returns to Constellation in May for “Gilgamesh.” He also keeps busy composing for television, avant-garde films, poetry readings and even exhibition openings for Nick Cave, the buzzed-about artist known for his Soundsuit installations. And each job and every destination becomes an interlude along his artistic journey.

“Every time I stop I come back with something. Frequently, it’s some new flashy technique or a new drum or something that’s shiny,” Teasley says. “And maybe what I come away with on this is something that’s a little less shiny but maybe a little deeper.”