13 Nov 2012

Wisdom With Wings: Folger's Conference of Birds Soars

Jens Rasmussen and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart share a passionate moment in The Conference of the Birds.

There are two weeks left to catch the Folger Theatre’s newest transformed drama, the Conference of the Birds, and there is good reason to make space on your calendar for this production. For one, it’s nothing like what you’d expect from a 12th-century Persian fable.

The performance, filled with dance, song, flowing action and a somewhat aviary Eileen Fisher-like costumes, transforms Farid Uddi Attar’s story of a group of birds searching for their mystical all-knowing king. It’s a modern adaptation that ponders millennia-old questions of truth and meaning.

Live, original music by Helen Hayes Award-winner Tom Teasley and cast members add to the strength of the direction led by award-winning director Aaron Posner, whose work at the Folger has recently included Cyrano and Macbeth.

Theatre innovator Peter Brook and actor Jean-Claude Carriere adapted Attar’s poem — a classic of Sufi literature — that has engaged audiences for nearly 1,000 years. The symbolism of birds goes back to the ancients. The combination of winged clamor and bird calls from the stage capture the drama of a flock and perhaps even evoke an exaltation of doves or a charm of finches. Simple costumes, like the parrot adorned only with a neck of bright scarves, allow the actors to use the birds’ movements and personalities to distinguish them from one another.

Patty Gallagher plays the wise Hoopoe, a colorful bird known for its distinctive ‘crown’ of feathers, and as the tale’s storyteller, both her measured voice and fluid physicality lead the journey. The sensuous performance of Tiffant Rachelle Stewart, as the heron, and the vocal powerhouse of Jessica Frances Dukes, as the peacock, stand out. Teasley’s score and lively instrumentals over the stage makes the performance feel like a intimate concert with lithe dancers littering the dance floor.

While each story shared by the birds brings their quest for meaning closer, one wishes they’d meet their king sooner rather than later. Isn’t that always the case?

There is a post-show conversation with the cast this Thursday night. Friday’s pre-show talk, Shakespeare in Kabul, delves into the cultural life and challenges faced by actors on and off stage in Afghanistan.

The Conference of Birds runs through November 25th. Tickets are available online at http://www.folger.edu/.

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