No-holds-barred mysticism rarely finds its way to the contemporary American stage. But this fall, the Folger Theatre, in Washington, D.C., is musing on humanity’s thirst for the divine. Through Nov. 25, the Folger is presenting award-winning director Aaron Posner’s production of “The Conference of the Birds,” a dramatization of a 12th-century Persian poem that draws on the tradition of Sufism, a mystical strain in Islam.
Written by Farid Uddi Attar, who was born around 1145 in what is now Iran, “The Conference of the Birds” chronicles the quest of the earth’s bird population to find a mysterious and all-powerful king. The play version, written by the legendary director Peter Brook in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière, centers on the character of the Hoopoe, a wry visionary who’s given to challenging his avian peers with vivid, unsettling and sometimes funny parables. The Hoopoe urges other feathered folk to join him in his quest to meet the Simorgh, an elusive, transcendent ruler. Many birds are reluctant to set off on the grueling journey, preferring to nurse their earthly vanities, preoccupations and fears. But the Hoopoe knows that the birds will find true fulfillment and peace only in the presence of the Simorgh.
“The Simorgh is hidden behind a veil,” the Hoopoe explains. “When he appears outside the veil, even for an instant, his face is as radiant as the sun….As no one can look him in the face, he made a mirror, so that all can see his reflection.”
“What is this mirror?” the Dove asks.
“It’s your heart,” the Hoopoe answers.
As a stage piece, “Conference of the Birds” dates back to 1971, when Brook, who has been interested in creating theater that transcends cultural boundaries, took a group of improvising actors, and a dedication to Attar’s text, on tour through Saharan Africa. (Brook’s cast at the time included the 26-year-old Helen Mirren, who, according to journalist John Heilpern, the tour’s chronicler, had cast her lot with Brook because “she couldn’t decide whether to be a classical actress or a Hollywood movie star.”)
A later incarnation of “Conference of the Birds” opened at the Avignon Festival in France in 1979. (Six years later, Avignon would see the premiere of Brook’s celebrated nine-hour version of the ancient Indian epic “The Mahabharata.”) Since then, the adaptation of Attar’s poem has not exactly been a staple of the Anglo-American stage.
But Posner, who has won multiple Helen Hayes Awards (the D.C.-area equivalent of the Tony Awards) for his directing in recent years, has long been fascinated by the colorful but enigmatic piece.
“I find it beautiful, provocative and genuinely wise,” he observed last week in a phone interview. “And I have never fully understood it and still don’t,” he adds, suggesting that the play’s inscrutability only adds to its appeal.
He first learned about “Conference of the Birds” during high school, when he developed an obsession with the art and theories of Peter Brook. Posner went on to stage the play at The University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, but that experience didn’t exhaust his enthusiasm for the Hoopoe’s quest.
“This is one of the most collaborative things I’ve ever done,” he says. So, “if I were to do it again next week, in a different place, with different people, it would be a different play.” (Among the collaborators he has assembled for the Folger production is composer-performer Tom Teasley, renowned in D.C. for creating and performing—live—breathtakingly resonant and exotic soundscapes for stage productions.)
While religiously inclined people may be drawn to “Conference of the Birds” as spiritual allegory, Posner believes the piece speaks on a variety of levels.
“All of us are on a journey toward some kind of distant goal—love, success, self-knowledge, enlightenment, or any goal, spiritual, practical or aesthetic,” he points out. So, since “Conference of the Birds” is “a core journey story,” he says, “people can relate to it in a lot of different ways— meaningful ways.”