Two quest stories, two examples of theatrical ingenuity and imagination, light Washington stages this week. Oh happy we!
In the warm wood confines of the intimate Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Aaron Posner and a lithe ensemble outline the mystical ruminations of a 12th-century Persian fable about how the world’s birds found their king, with the musician Tom Teasley weaving a world’s worth of musical threads together into a haunting soundscape and actor-dancers finding richly evocative physical expressions of flocks in flight and at rest. In the vast, plush expanse of the Kennedy Center Opera House, a children’s novel about war and peace and man and beast plays out on one of the nation’s larger stages, with folky songs accenting the action and astounding life-sized puppets standing in for the horses that give the story its substantial heart. Taken together, the two shows are a vivid reminder of what makes theater—when it’s fired by inspiration—such a singularly affecting art.
The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi mystic’s meditation on the search for the divine, but if that sounds passive, the show is anything but. Built in part around tall tales of cruel kings and lovestruck princesses, it’s narrated by a wise hoopoe (played with notes of wonder and sadness by Patty Gallagher), who gathers a multitude of birds—from the timid sparrow to the proud falcon to the vainglorious peacock—and marshals them for an urgent journey. The birds, it seems, are the only creatures in creation that don’t have a monarch, or so it’s been thought. The hoopoe knows better, though, and tells her winged brethren that beyond a mountain at the end of the world, there dwells an ur-bird called the Simorgh. Finding him won’t be easy, and only the bravest and truest will survive the journey, but still it must be undertaken.
Persuading them will be half the battle, of course, and much of Conference is devoted to inquiries into fear, self-interest, shallow desire, and the like. To each objection, the hoopoe responds with a parable, and eventually—this stretch does occasionally flag a trifle—the birds launch themselves across an endless desert and a series of seven valleys, each one a metaphor for a mental or spiritual state that must be explored before self-knowledge and true union with the divine can be hoped for.
Led by director Aaron Posner and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch—working, presumably, in tight coordination with Teasley, whose insinuating polyrhythms inform everything about the evening—the ensemble creates ravishing stage pictures: a sensuous duet for that passion-addled princess and the slave she’s mad for, wildly colorful swirls of avian chaos as the flock battles a windstorm, a sweeping gesture by an astrologer that dashes an entire cosmos to dust in an instant. The rich and suggestive costumes are by Olivera Gajic, the imposing set by Meghan Raham, and the whole is lit with surpassing grace by Jennifer Schriever.
Mysticism being, well, mystical, audiences may come away with as many questions as answers about what all this lovely tale-spinning means—but that’s kind of the point. Posner notes in the program that our ponderings about the piece will ultimately be as important as the experience in the theater, which is another way of putting what amounts to the hoopoe’s final benediction: “The way is open, but there is neither traveler nor guide.”
War Horse Adapted by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo Directed by Bijan Sheibani, based on original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris; At the Kennedy Center to Nov. 11
If The Conference of the Birds achieves the epic with theatrical sleight of hand, War Horse just goes big—really big. The program lists a cast of 34; the most important characters are two massive equine puppets, crafted of steel and fabric and wire, each requiring three actors to operate. There are villagers and Tommys and Germans, and countrysides and battlefields projected on a stage-spanning scrap of sketchbook paper—a nod to a central story thread that involves a British officer and his drawings of the titular horse.
Said steed is Joey, raised from a foal by a Devonshire farmboy, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), and sold cruelly into the British cavalry by the boy’s drunken lout of a father. When word comes that the officer riding Joey has died in combat, Albert steals away to the front and enlists, determined to find his companion on the killing fields of World War I France. There, men with pistols and sabers for the first time confront machine guns and a horrifying new thing called a tank, and humans and horses alike die in throngs as a result.
The production—a touring version of the staging seen first in the U.S. at New York’s Lincoln Center—doesn’t stint on the carnage. But it’s at heart still a children’s story, and there’s a lyricism to it that makes the darkness easier to bear. Humor, too: Enjoy that recurring business about a particularly aggressive goose.
It’s often been noted that many of the human characters in War Horse are thinly drawn, but Veenstra makes a good case for Albert, as does Angela Reed for his much-put-upon mum. And it’s a particular pleasure to see John Milosich, a veteran of D.C.’s Synetic Theater, commanding the Opera House stage as the ballad singer whose melodies knit the show’s scenes together.
You see War Horse for the war horses, though, and they are majestic things indeed, cleverly designed and operated with minute attention to the details of how the real creature listens and breathes and moves. And feels—for make no mistake, this is a story about not just animal intelligence, but animal emotion, and it’s utterly convincing on both accounts.