“The Conference of the Birds” is beautiful. The first (and most notable) exquisite aspect is the set itself. Staged in the Laurie Theater, a small round space, the actors bring the play to life in an arena incredibly close to the audience. Behind a platform sketched with what looks like sand, lies a portal—a screen that navigates the audience into clouds, or a storm, or even another world. Combined with striking costumes, “The Conference of the Birds” is worth seeing for the spectacle itself. Cameron Anderson (THA) served as scenic and projection design director, while Tyler Kinney acted as costume and mask design director. Christopher Ostrom worked the lighting while David Reiffel did sound design, and Maura Neff stage managed.
Peter Brook and Jean Claude Carrière adapted “The Conference of the Birds” from the epic poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. “I am very grateful to Brandeis University for making this project possible,” wrote Hafiz Karmali in the director’s note. “Now more than ever, the world needs to know that there are diverse interpretations of Islam…”
The plot of “The Conference of the Birds” (which follows Attar’s text) details the journey of the birds as they are tested and tempted in route to find the Simurgh, their King, and worship him. The Hoopoe, who Karmali calls a “divinely-inspired bird who once delivered love letters between Solomon and Sheba,” encourages the other birds to leave their homes and embark on this great quest. Many of the birds use excuses to get out of having to go on the journey, and these are similar to the reasons people provide when deciding not to seek faith or absolution, such as an attachment to money, homeland or love. The birds who remain must travel through a desert and seven valleys (each with their own lesson) before discovering the truth about their King.
In addition to the set and costumes, the cast is excellent, proving to the larger community that Brandeis theater is thriving despite this year’s absence of a graduate program. Samantha LeVangie ’15 is the rock of this production. As the Hoopoe, she acts as a leader and a guide for the other birds. She is encouraging and charismatic, dramatic when she needs to be and forever humble. LeVangie is able to motivate the audience and engage them, just as she does with the other birds onstage.
An audience favorite was Ramona Wright ’17, whose body language and uproarious facial expressions keep the audience hooked. Wright mainly portrays a sparrow, a bird who calls herself too weak to make the journey to see her King. While the Hoopoe attempts to inspire the sparrow to push past her worldly constraints, the sparrow often attempts to sneak away at night. The audience often chuckled at Wright’s playful attempts to escape and her downtrodden, pouty faces.
Another standout is Ryan Millis ’15, who provides comic relief throughout the entire production. The absolute best moment in the entire show is when Millis, playing a peacock, abruptly begins dancing and thrusting, demonstrating the vanity and arrogance of the stunning bird. Millis also plays a disorganized and lost penguin. Even if he is only on the stage for moments, Millis manages to draw everyone’s attention. However, the entire cast works as a unit. There is a great collaboration and dual movements, which gives the sense that every single participant is vital to the show. As well, most of the actors play multiple roles.
Another surprisingly fantastic aspect of the show was the musical element. Rebecca Myers ’18 who played the Nightingale often sang beautiful songs like her namesake, and Miriam Esther Goldman ’15 proved she has an unbelievably good operatic range. Andrew Hyde ’17, who played the Falcon, also demonstrated his musical talent by playing the cello at key moments.
“The Conference of the Birds” is not an experience for the faint of heart, for either the actors onstage or the audience. Under the lights on stage, the actors undergo trials and tribulations, doubts and mistakes and many, many years before they discover the truth about their King. As for the audience, the play is incredibly spiritual and esoteric, like the piece of fine poetry that it is based on. When deciding to attend “The Conference of the Birds,” keep in mind that it is art of the highest order, the kind that is not always so easy to understand or quantify.
Karmali wrote that during rehearsals, the cast and crew “made wonderful discoveries of encounters among Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions … let us hope that our artistic endeavor will serve to remind us that the divine spark resides within us all.” Echoes of other religions can be heard throughout the production very clearly. In fact, the Hoopoe, who teaches religious lessons in parables, has a relationship to the other birds that is remarkably similar to Jesus and his disciples.
While the play has some slow spots and lulls, it is definitely one show this year worth seeing.