November 1, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Birds of a feather?

‘The Conference of the Birds’
Through Nov. 25
Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol Street, SE
$40-$68
202-675-0342

Wings, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

The cast of ‘Conference of the Birds.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy Folger)

Best known for fresh takes on Shakespeare, director Aaron Posner has expanded his repertoire. For his current offering at the Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill, he’s taken on “The Conference of the Birds,” an ensemble piece based on the 12th century Persian fable by Sufi poet Farid Uddi Attar. Told from the point of view of anthropomorphized feathered friends, it’s a compelling exploration of humanity’s quest for meaning.

At the urging of an unrelenting hoopoe, a varied flock of 10 birds are convinced to undertake an arduous journey to meet their ruler, the Simorgh. Understandably, they’re not all so eager to fly the coop: the parrot is content to remain in his gilded cage; the duck doesn’t want to leave water and the sparrow thinks she’s too weak for such a flight. But the hoopoe, played with wide-eyed intensity by Patty Gallagher, is very persuasive and off they all go.

The bird’s pilgrimage is long and hazardous: After crossing the desert (the anteroom of their trip), they must fly through seven valleys each of which offers its own lesson in love, understanding, annihilation, etc. Not all of the flock makes it to the Simorgh, but those who do are rewarded with an ample serving of universal truth.

Using words, music and movement, “Conference” takes its audience on a theatrical adventure. Posner’s inventive directing along with choreographer Erika Chong Shuch’s quirky, spasmodic moves brings the wordy work alive in exciting and unexpected ways. The talented 11-person cast (which includes Tara Giordano, Britt Duff and Jens Rasmussen who double duties as dance captain) is always in motion, transforming from birds to kings, slaves and hermits. Without ever leaving the stage floor, the actors subtly morph into a v-formation flock flying high overhead, seemingly covering great stretches of terrain on their winged journey.

Perched high atop the Folger’s stage, composer/musician Tom Teasley performs original music throughout the two-hour play using instruments from around the world. His exhilarating score — drawn from an eclectic variety of sound, rhythm and melody — adds significantly to the production.

The remainder of the design team is equally top notch. Meghan Raham’s timeless set of hanging burlap panels and twinkly amber lights is backed meaningfully by a wall of mirrors. And whether it’s the blinding light found in the valley of amazement or the darkness and fire in the telling of the moth to flame story, Jennifer Schriever’s lighting design is consistently clever and evocative.

While the cast mimics bird movements here and there, costume designer Olivera Gajic smartly resists the temptation to go avian. Instead, she outfits the birds in comfortable tops and drapey pants (and one or two skirts) in muted tones. Even the glorious peacock’s multi-colored wings are much quieter than what you’d expect from that feathered diva (memorably played by Jessica Frances Dukes).

Adapted for the stage by famed British director Peter Brooks and screenwriter/actor Jean-Claude Carriére, “Conference” premiered in 1971, touring Saharan African before playing to Western audiences. Its wisdom and beauty stimulates self-exploration. The work is “The Wizard of Oz”-ish in its suggestion that the search for fulfillment begins and ends within ourselves.

“Conference” is definitely a bold theatrical choice and Posner pulls it off with great imagination and style.

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