by Justin Beland
Perhaps it’s the remnants of election fever, but it’s difficult to watch the Folger Theatre’s exquisite production of The Conference of the Birds and not think of the massively contentious Presidential race we all just endured. “Wherever I look I see nothing but quarrels,” states the hoopoe, leader of the titular birds. “Desperate fights for a scrap of territory, wars for a few grains of corn.”
The 1979 play, written by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière and based on a 12th-century Persian poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, is by no means political, but rather a symbolic journey of overcoming human ego and discovering inner peace and beauty. However, after two years of nonstop campaign news, it’s certainly easy to sympathize with the intrepid group of birds who simply want to find their king and live to tell the tale.
The unintended metaphor notwithstanding, the play is spectacularly staged and acted, a frenetic amalgamation of music, dance, stories, and what is likely the most epic fart joke in the entirety of Persian poetry. Director Aaron Posner does an excellent job of using just 11 actors in a play that calls for no less than 35 different characters, and the multi-talented ensemble fills each role brilliantly. When they’re not dancing, singing, doing acrobatics, or playing ukulele, they’re strutting about the stage in jerky, wide-eyed movements that are so eerily like actual birds that it’s unnerving. And this without the use of elaborate costuming ; since a great deal of the first act is presented through parables that the birds tell each other, the actors must switch from being “birds” to the characters in those parables (kings, slaves, beggars, princesses) at a moment’s notice. It’s an impressive bit of artistic acrobatics.
The play begins with the hoopoe calling together all the birds and urging them to travel with her to find a (possibly mythical) bird king called the Simorgh. Each bird has their own reason for not wanting to undertake the journey; the falcon already has a (human) king, the duck doesn’t want to stray from water, and the parrot is happy in his cage. Each bird is convinced to make the journey when the hoopoe spins stories that illustrate why their fear, vanity, love, and cowardice are misplaced. The parables the hoopoe tells are alternately funny and heartbreaking, a grand exercise in group storytelling that never wears out its welcome. (Except, perhaps, to the birds themselves – one angrily asks the hoopoe why she insists on speaking in riddles. “Can’t you guess?” she replies.)
Finally the group undertakes its journey, first flying through a desert, then through seven valleys, each with their own hardships and tribulations. Erika Chong Shuch’s choreography is brilliant here as the birds fly and dance in formation. The audience can’t see the awful things the birds see, but the horrified expressions on the actors face are evidence enough. While the journey is harrowing, there are frequent moments of beauty, such as when the sparrow (portrayed in wonderfully sheepish fashion by Britt Duff) plucks a soft, Joanna Newsom-esque song on her ukulele.
Duff is not the only musical talent in the production. The Nightingale (Annapurna Sriram) also takes a turn at the ukulele, singing a song about her one true love – roses. The alternately egomaniacal and petrified peacock (brilliantly played by Jessica Frances Dukes) sings a jumpy number while sashaying through the audience, fake feathers flying. Celeste Jones has perhaps the most impressive number, an uplifting spiritual about the love she feels for her king – who ultimately has her decapitated.
But no discussion of the music is complete without praising musician Tom Teasley, who supplies all of the background music. Perched (sorry, had to) high above the stage, Teasley uses a vast array of traditional African instruments to convey the emotions of the birds and add to their story without ever infringing on it. His perfectly timed flourishes complete the wonderful aviary that’s taking place inside the Folger Theater.