Two quest stories, two examples of theatrical ingenuity and imagination, light Washington stages this week. Oh happy we!
In the warm wood confines of the intimate Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Aaron Posner and a lithe ensemble outline the mystical ruminations of a 12th-century Persian fable about how the world’s birds found their king, with the musician Tom Teasley weaving a world’s worth of musical threads together into a haunting soundscape and actor-dancers finding richly evocative physical expressions of flocks in flight and at rest. In the vast, plush expanse of the Kennedy Center Opera House, a children’s novel about war and peace and man and beast plays out on one of the nation’s larger stages, with folky songs accenting the action and astounding life-sized puppets standing in for the horses that give the story its substantial heart. Taken together, the two shows are a vivid reminder of what makes theater—when it’s fired by inspiration—such a singularly affecting art.
The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi mystic’s meditation on the search for the divine, but if that sounds passive, the show is anything but. Built in part around tall tales of cruel kings and lovestruck princesses, it’s narrated by a wise hoopoe (played with notes of wonder and sadness by Patty Gallagher), who gathers a multitude of birds—from the timid sparrow to the proud falcon to the vainglorious peacock—and marshals them for an urgent journey. The birds, it seems, are the only creatures in creation that don’t have a monarch, or so it’s been thought. The hoopoe knows better, though, and tells her winged brethren that beyond a mountain at the end of the world, there dwells an ur-bird called the Simorgh. Finding him won’t be easy, and only the bravest and truest will survive the journey, but still it must be undertaken.
Persuading them will be half the battle, of course, and much of Conference is devoted to inquiries into fear, self-interest, shallow desire, and the like. To each objection, the hoopoe responds with a parable, and eventually—this stretch does occasionally flag a trifle—the birds launch themselves across an endless desert and a series of seven valleys, each one a metaphor for a mental or spiritual state that must be explored before self-knowledge and true union with the divine can be hoped for.
Led by director Aaron Posner and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch—working, presumably, in tight coordination with Teasley, whose insinuating polyrhythms inform everything about the evening—the ensemble creates ravishing stage pictures: a sensuous duet for that passion-addled princess and the slave she’s mad for, wildly colorful swirls of avian chaos as the flock battles a windstorm, a sweeping gesture by an astrologer that dashes an entire cosmos to dust in an instant. The rich and suggestive costumes are by Olivera Gajic, the imposing set by Meghan Raham, and the whole is lit with surpassing grace by Jennifer Schriever.
Mysticism being, well, mystical, audiences may come away with as many questions as answers about what all this lovely tale-spinning means—but that’s kind of the point. Posner notes in the program that our ponderings about the piece will ultimately be as important as the experience in the theater, which is another way of putting what amounts to the hoopoe’s final benediction: “The way is open, but there is neither traveler nor guide.”