With strong direction by Aaron Posner, an eleven member cast and one extraordinary percussionist excel with presenting The Conference of the Birds in such a way that fuses Western and Eastern music and dance influences together to create a spell-binding theatrical event. This Folger Theatre mainstage production, based on a great work of Sufi literature, allows audience members to ponder large existential questions (largely of the esoteric nature), while being thoroughly entertaining. The balance that is achieved is remarkable even if some of the physical humor is a bit too overdone for my taste.
Based on the Persian poem that Farid Uddi Attar wrote nearly 1000 years ago, Jean-Claude Carriére and Peter Brook's allegorical play explores how a group birds endures a difficult journey to find its King (called Simorgh) under the leadership of an extremely dedicated Hoopoe (an effectively authoritarian Patty Gallagher). As the birds cross diverse terrain, they question not only whether they will make the journey, but also whether the journey will be 'worth it' in the end. They push their physical, emotional, and spiritual limits as those who do finish the journey discover themselves and their own inner strength.
Backed with original music composed and performed by the masterful and award-winning Tom Teasley (who is reason enough to see this show), eleven actors impressively embody our avian friends on a journey without nary a feather on their costumes (cleverly designed by Olivera Gajic). All are equally skillful with acting/storytelling, physical movement, and singing although several of them have standout moments even in this overwhelmingly ensemble piece. Britt Duff is endearing as the shy sparrow and has a nice moment in Act II, which shows off her folksy musical talents. Jessica Frances Dukes uses her strong stage presence to her distinct advantage as she takes on the seemingly self-confident peacock. With quick, deliberate, and precise physical movement and intense line delivery she exudes power. When Tiffany Rachelle Stewart is the focus of the scene, whether embodying a heron or a lover, it's impossible to keep your eyes off her. Her striking presence, coupled with nuanced acting even in the ensemble-heavy scenes, makes her one to watch. She's always in character.
Production-wise, this is one of the strongest I've seen at Folger. Meghan Raham's scenic design, largely comprised of burlap tapestries and mirrors, highlights the mystical nature of this piece and further illuminates the theme of self-discovery. Jennifer Schriever innovatively uses an impressive array of lightbulbs in her lighting design, which further adds to the ambience. The reality presented on stage is mythical and the subtle yet interesting lighting and sound elements (Tom Teasley, Elisheba Ittoop) capture it perfectly. Erika Chong Shuch's modern choreography is most effective in scenes where the birds are flying together to their destination and is skillfully executed by all of the actors.
Strong acting and equally impressive presentation elements make this production one that I'd recommend for the discerning theatregoer.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes including an intermission.
The Conference of the Birds is being presented by the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library – 201 East Capitol Street, SE in Washington, DC – through November 25, 2012. For tickets, call (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.
Photo: Courtesy of Folger Theatre