Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Journeys Rare and Familiar Light Up D.C. Stages

Extraordinary music is coming from the stages of Washington’s theaters this fall.

King of Birds

Aaron Posner’s production of “The Conference of the Birds,” at the Folger Shakespeare Theater through Sunday, has its swan song this week. This extraordinary production is a must-see for the season. It is an absolutely special, transporting night of theater.

“The Conference of the Birds” is a modern and gorgeous retelling of the 1,000-year-old classic Persian poem of the same name. It is the wise hoopoe bird who tells his fellow birds about the true king, the Simorgh, which means 30 birds in Persian. The hoopoe convinces the birds to come with him in his journey to find the Simorgh.

There is a catch, however, as there always is with a quest. The birds must leave their comfort zones to head into peril. The birds pass through seven dangerous and treacherous worlds before coming to the Simorgh — assuming the king exists at all.

Posner’s direction and Tom Teasley’s score are the perfect marriage of music and movement. The union of these two creative forces creates a magical atmosphere wherein the performers can switch from tightly wound avian pecking to the sinuous motion of lovers to the soaring, sweeping motion of flight.

“The Conference of the Birds” is a universal story, an allegory for the personal journey of life and discovering the self and the divine. It is haunting and inspiring, and at the end, the players and the audience come to realize that the Simorgh is a great mirror that reflects back the divine within each of us.

In Posner’s notes about the play, the director focuses on the poem’s connection with the Sufi tradition. The story of the hoopoe and the Simorgh is one of the origin stories of the Persian people, and school children across Iran learn the poem to this day. The imagery of birds, water, balance and reflection is spun throughout the rest of Persian poetry. This is the poem that tells the story of the Persian people writ large, cultures that span Iran, Afghanistan, India, Turkey and the entire Persian diaspora.

It is, after all, a culture where poetry and journey are critical to its understanding of itself. Conversely, it’s through performances such as those in “The Conference of the Birds” that a Western audience might leave with a more profound understanding of another culture.

Eliza Undone

Across town, a quintessential play about Western civilization, “My Fair Lady,” is playing at Arena Stage through Jan. 3. Eliza Doolittle is again struggling to find her voice with the help of the Professor Henry Higgins, but where “The Conference of the Birds” celebrates freedom and breaking free of cages, Eliza’s story is about choosing a life in the gilded cage.

This classic musical is a deeply flawed version of the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion.” In England, a person’s class identity is closely connected to language, and Doolittle’s accent is representative of the deep class divisions in the culture. Higgins, a brilliant brute, takes the young flower seller under his wing as a bet. In six months, he promises, he can pass her off as lady.

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