The Folger Theatre’s adaptation of this medieval Persian poem proves a visually stunning experience
The latest production at the theatre of the world’s centre for Shakespeare studies in Washington DC, The Folger Theater, is a visual, sensory spectacle in a way that no other production of The Folger has ever been.
The Conference of the Birds, by Jean-Claude Carrière and Peter Brook, is based on Persian Sufi Farid Uddi Attar’s twelfth-century poem. As Director Aaron Posner writes in the programme, “The story is simple. Led by an urgent and insistent Hoopoe, an assortment of birds leave their quotidian lives on a quest to find their true King, the Simorgh… [The poem is meant] to illustrate the soul of Sufism.” The play opens with a drum solo by the live musician, Tom Teasley, who is perched in a nest of his own high above the stage, immediately engaging the audience even before the lights go down. Actors appear not only on the stage but also enter from behind the audience, who become visual, auditory and physical participants in the performance.
In the opening scene, the actors, who all play birds, appear on the stage. At first glance, they don’t seem particularly bird-like. Their costumes have no feathers or wings, and the actors do not wear beaks. Instead, each and every one of them uses their bodily movements to suggest that they are birds, from the ways that they move their heads to the ways that they walk to the ways that they fly. Moments of clamour are demonstrated by a rhythmic multi-layered chant of “ta tee tee ta,” and moments where they fly as a flock are presented as coordinated movements all across the stage. Having seen the play from both the vantage point of the balcony and the orchestra section, I had the opportunity to experience the play in two very different fashions. From the balcony, one can appreciate the unity of these moments of collective “birdiness,” if you will. From the orchestra section, one is able to focus on individual birds more closely.
The individual tales that are presented within the play add another interesting dimension to the performance, as the actors transition out of their bird characters into tyrants and slaves and princesses, and back again to birds, with surprising ease. Some of the unexpected moments occur when the actors burst into song. One particularly memorable song occurs when a slave is professing her love for her king in an Aretha Franklin-esque number that has the actors on stage dancing. The anachronistic interruption of much of the music, which is meant to suggest Persia or Sufism, is a pleasing surprise.
The lighting also adds an interesting dimension to the performance. When the birds are traveling over the desert, the wind whistles and the lighting is bright in order to suggest the harshness of the conditions. During a tale about the moth that became one with the bright flame, the lighting is extremely dimmed, and only the actors’ faces are illuminated by small floor lights near the front of the stage. To show how each moth dances closer and closer to the flame until the final moth burns, the actors who portray each of the three moths hold a small, bright, single white light, and practically dance with it in order to convey a moth in flight. The tactic is very effective and quite beautiful.
My one criticism about this amazing performance is about the set design. Multiple brown thatched-looking panels hang down. While the set design works for the multiple settings that the play invokes, the panels are fairly large, and from any extreme side of the orchestra section, tend to obscure some of the actors. In sum, both my experiences of the performance were a delight, and truly spectacular in every way that a theatrical performance should be.
The Conference of the Birds will be in performance until November 25. For further information, visit the site here.
Image from: https://i.goldstar.com/gse_media/112/9/conference-of-birds.jpg
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