“The way is open but there is neither traveler nor guide.” That is the closing statement and tagline of Folger Theatre’s production of The Conference of the Birds. Based on the poem by Farid Uddi Attar the stage version is written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Peter Brook. Directed by Aaron Posner this production is a flurry of interpretive dance and movement mingled with the brilliant audio creations of Helen Hayes Award-winning Composer Tom Teasley. The Conference of the Birds allows you to ponder the greater meanings of life along its spiritual and metaphysical journeys and paths.
Scenic Designer Meghan Raham creates a simplistic approach to lining the stage of the Folger for the production. With long stripes of bark-like brownness hanging from the ceiling the stage is reminiscent of a forest or some other wooded gathering where the birds of the world might congregate. Interspersed with columns and backdrops of mirrored surfaces, the set is completed in its mythic proportions with the notions of Lighting Designer Jennifer Schriever. Over two dozen bulbs of various size and shape are hung at various lengths from the ceiling down over the stage and out over the audience, hints and shadows of fireflies or other natural light sources found in the Avian kingdom.
Costume Designer Olivera Gajic takes a similarly minimalist approach to her designs, creating the great birds of the world in shades of grays, browns and subtle shifts in earthy tones like green. This was both a great disappointment and a clever tactic to instill upon the performance. By limiting the physical appearance of the bird’s costumes it ensures the audience must not only imagine their great plumage but rely heavily upon the actor’s physical gestures and embodiments of their avian bird of choice. We do see a hint of color when defining the Peacock and her proud colorful feathers, but outside of this, the rags of dirt and clay coloring leave much to the imagination.
Director Aaron Posner working with Choreographer Erika Chong Shuch crafts moments of intense beauty upon the stage in their execution of exploratory movement. Many of the dances are not dances so much as they are representations of excursions or other parts of the poem as the tale unfolds. Shuch offers a unique approach to the dance work in this production as all of the steps and movements are meant to be performed not by ordinary humans but by humans embodying both physically and mentally the spirit of birds. His casting choices are more than appropriate, picking the smallest of the cast, Britt Duff, as the sparrow; a long elegant and limber body to play the Heron (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and a bulky muscular fellow to play the Falcon (Jay Dunn).
Posney’s consistency with the adaptation of human to bird is wavering. At the beginning of the performance when it is quite clear the actors upon stage each represent a great bird of the world, they do so flawlessly. Jutting necks, twitches of the face and head, as well as strutting limbs and ruffled arms to imitate wings; all of these gestures and many more create live birds on the stage from these 11 performers without the aid of fancy costumes or real feathers. The contrast as these “birds” become humans during the Hoopoe’s tales is sharp and clearly defined. The problem comes late in the story, as the birds make their journey across the seven valleys toward the mighty bird king.
After the intermission the actors lose their bird-like qualities and momentum. We no longer see them twitching their heads about like the curious birds from the first half, or scrunching their physical form to look more like the avian counterparts they are portraying. What we do see is weary actors on stage. And while the characters at this point are meant to be exhausted as their perilous journey continues, seeing them completely lose touch with their inner bird is disheartening and disappointing.
The acting is stupendous. The only person who never acts like a bird is the Hoopoe (Patty Gallagher). While she is the leader of the birds gathered and often the narrative story teller among them, seeing her acting as a normal human with no bird like movements or qualities was confusing but not in an enigmatic sense, only a disproportionate one. Gallagher’s performance is engaging, each story she alights to the stage is crisp and brilliant as if being told for the very first time, and her rallying spirit to guide the birds to action is afresh with vigor and lightning.
While each of the birds makes an entertaining appearance, like the Parrot (Robert Barry Fleming) when he shows jittery nerves about leaving his cage, or the Peacock (Jessica Frances Dukes) when she shows up larger than life to squawk, strut her stuff, and show off her colors; the best performances come from these actors when they shed their feathers and slip into the Hoopoe’s stories as humans. The most specific example of this is when the Magpie (Jen Rasmussen) and the Heron (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) engage in a dreamlike sequence as a princess and slave who share a passionate evening together. Stewart and Rasmussen’s bodies entwine to a sultry beat during an exploratory piece of dance-like movement that is simply mesmerizing; every eye in the house glued to them, entranced upon their physical expressions to the point where the Hoopoe’s narrations are almost completely drowned away in the background.
Mingling with the incredible orchestrations of Tom Teasley is the Nightingale (Annapurna Sriram) and her beautifully haunting song. Sriram plays a small guitar and sings a siren’s song throughout the piece, echoing her voice like the nightingale she portrays with a sweet sorrow. Often joined by others in song, including Britt Duff, Jessica Frances Dukes, and Celeste Jones, the pristine voices of these lady-birds will melt your heart, especially when Duff takes to singing in the valley of love.
The music never misses a beat throughout the production. Teasley’s wild orchestrations are primal in nature and echo cries of these birds without falling into the generic hackneyed trap of bird calling. His rhythms are fierce and drive many of dance numbers with a raucous beat and wild feeling of freedom behind them. Teasley’s composition sounds as if it were derived from the very spirit of the earth; echoing a time of nature with the reality of the world of these birds.
If you can find no other reason to see this production, seeing Tom Teasley in action and hearing his magnificent music is definitely cause to do so.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, including one iintermission
The Conference of the Birds plays through November 25, 2012 at Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-4600, or purchase them online.
Joel Markowitz interviews Composer/Musician Tom Teasley.