Imagination and creativity are in full bloom in the Elizabethan theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Director Aaron Posner mounts a delightful production of Jean-Claude Carriere and Peter Brook's adaptation of The Conference of the Birds. This 12th century Sufi poem by Farid Uddi Attar uses the birds of the title as a metaphor. Their long arduous quest to find their king stands in for mankind's longing to attain enlightenment.
The birds of the world are sad as they have no king. A wise hoopoe (a type of kingfisher) advises that the birds do have a king, the mythical Simorgh, but they will have to undertake a long difficult journey to find him. Many of the birds are frightened and come up with various excuses as to why they should not undertake the journey. Some birds give up, others die, but those who succeed are given the reward they seek.
Interspersed with fables that illustrate the challenges the birds face, The Conference of the Birds invites comparison with The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales. In fact, anyone who has witnessed Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of the former or her Ovid's Metamorphosis which is being mounted at Arena Stage in 2013 will find a great deal of similarity in The Conference of the Birds staging methods.
Meghan Raham's scenic design enhances the Elizabethan-style stage succeeding in disguising the pillars and balcony in an unobtrusive way. Olivera Gajic's costumes flow over the actors' bodies. They are not literal bird costumes, which is a good thing. Yet, some of the pieces which are added to the basic earth-tone garments, such as the beautiful robe donned by the peacock are suggestive of the bird theme. Tom Teasley provides a one-man musical accompaniment that is rich in its themes and perfectly balanced without overpowering the actors' words.
The ensemble of eleven led by Patty Gallagher's Hoopoe are a unit. Whether flying as a flock or listening as a few tell a story, they embody the birds they represent with a clarity of motion and feeling that makes this a worthy evening of theatrical storytelling.
The Conference of the Birds is being performed at the Folger Theatre through November 25, 2012. For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.folger.edu/theatre