The Conference of the Birds
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., March 2, 2001
The Conference of the Birds: Grounded
Mary Moody Northen Theatre,
through March 4
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min
The ensemble theatre production is often the one that tackles exceptional, difficult work -- difficult in that the staging encompasses sweeping, epic themes in nonrealistic ways and the storytelling is approached through the work of the group as a whole, rather than individuals. Dialogue takes on poetic proportions, movement enters the realm of dance, and the sets, costumes, lights, and sound all take prominent roles in sculpting the environment of the play. For members of the ensemble entrusted with this great storytelling responsibility, the feeling is nearly euphoric -- the energy generated onstage when the ensemble is in full flight can be felt by the audience; the theatre hums with a different kind of vibrancy. Sometimes, the feeling is clearly stronger onstage than in the house, and then the stage may hum with the creative energies of a dedicated ensemble telling a story, but it's an energy that can't soar past the footlights.
So it is with this St. Edward's University production of The Conference of the Birds, by Jean-Claude Carriere and Peter Brook. Guest director Marjorie Hayes has taken a vast team of student and faculty talent and shaped a work that has every sense of being a seminal experience for those involved, but that never stirs the same fervor among the spectators. Why not? Peter Brook's book The Empty Space sits on every theatre practitioner's shelf, usually dog-eared and annotated by its owner, because Brook fairly revolutionized the approach to theatre when he suggested that all a play requires is an actor, an audience, and an empty space, which can then be filled with images and dreams and wonderful storytelling in its most beautiful simplicity. It is this simplicity that is largely neglected here.
The Conference of the Birds is an adaptation of a Farid Uddi Attar poem about all the birds in the world coming together and setting off on a journey to find their god. Not all the birds wish to make the trip, many quit the journey or die trying -- the birds display all-too-human frailties in their quest -- and the few that survive trial after trial have much -- too much almost -- to comprehend of the nature of god. The actors portray these birds, strutting, pecking, flying, and Hayes' cast dutifully and wholeheartedly works to enact her images of birds in flight, birds at roost, birds engaged in philosophical discussion. But the images gradually become homogeneous; didactic tales within the story take on a vague similarity and lose impact; the six parts of the play blend until they seem indistinguishable -- and long.
The whole event is not aided by the un-simple design. Although George Harbeson and Mark Porter's elemental set (earth, water, and a sloping ramp for flight) offers plenty of possibilities, Porter's lighting makes too much of high tech instrumentation that just doesn't offer the humans onstage the kind of theatrical support they need; often, speaking characters are left in the dark, with the cyber-lights struggling to catch up and find them. Eric Reyes-Abbott's costumes include winglike silks designed by Michelle Nye, but in the dim light these tattered wings don't offer much differentiation between, say, a peacock and a pigeon. There seem to be too many competing elements to allow for the simplicity required of telling so spiritual a story.
That the St. Edward's theatre department and Hayes have taken on this project with so many working so hard together is a triumph of the ensemble process. But this epic does not have the wings to triumph as a theatrical production.