Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
There are many ways in which a small, community-based theatre can be ambitious, but I can't think of an ambition more pure or admirable than an aspiration to Art. That is the intention abundantly on display in the Key City Public Theatre production of "The Conference of the Birds." A cast of eleven creates a literal flock of twenty-two bird characters on a quest for truth, insight and transcendence. It is a somewhat esoteric piece of material, but here it feels as accessible as a child's fairy tale, and like many of those fairy tales, it is underlaid with profoundly serious philosophical content.
The production is a large-scale theatrical adaptation of an allegorical 12th Century Persian poem filtered through the aesthetic of the great director Peter Brook (with Jean-Claude Carriere) and performed through music, dance, costume and poetry. This re-imagined staging by Marc Weinblatt adds music as a part of the action and adjusts the text. Composer Laurence Cole accompanies the production throughout, and his tasteful, elegant and beautifully composed music, performed by him from on-stage, is vital to this production. DD Wigley, as the Hoopoe, serves as the narrator and leader of the birds, and she is assured without being overly assertive, comfortable and compelling.
The ensemble is made up of actors with a wide range of experience, but Director Marc Weinblatt molds that disparity in skill and technique into individuality of character, and the group as a whole feels unified and balanced. Most importantly, there is no variation in the commitment to the integrity of the story or the immediacy of the performance. A great danger with this sort of work is that seriousness of intent will become pretentiousness, or even worse, comic. It's never a problem here. The impersonation of bird behavior is clever and amusing, and the passion to pursue the quest is genuine and engaging. It is progressively more significant with every passage in the journey. Each of the actors create a distinctive type and collectively they create a "conference"as diverse and unique as any true community. The poetry (Director Weinblatt has chosen to return to the source for much of the first act) is sensuous and evocative, and generally well delivered.
It is probably unfair to focus on individual performances in a work so inherently intended as an ensemble piece, but some of these actors simply deserve appreciation for their strengths. Lawrason Driscoll created a dozen different bird characters and each was well-defined, fully realized and remarkably creative. I thought Heather Poulsen as the proud Falcon had the best line-delivery, making each word of the poetry resonant and lyrical, and the best discipline in that critical acting skill known as "active listening." Aimee Kelley Spencer brought the Heron a sense of experience and engagement that was very effective. Sam Cavallaro made the timid Sparrow sympathetic and admirable, as much through his physical language as through the text. I also enjoyed Rebecca May as the vain Peacock, well-controlled and safely this side of caricature. While these performers showed particular strength, the best thing I can say about their performances is that they didn't stand out, don't separate from the rest of the cast. The 105 minute uninterrupted playing time is a bit physically demanding for the audience, but the story doesn't really have a place where it could break, and the continuity of the journey is really essential. The physical production is handsome and imaginative, especially in Kevin Coker's simple and effective desert set design and the beautiful head-pieces and shawls Erin McNamara designed to create the birds.
"The Conference of the Birds" is a difficult and challenging piece of theatre, but it is also a reminder of the wealth of the world's literary tradition, the power of poetry as a means of conveying our cultural and social values, and the imaginative strength of theatrical gesture in making old stories new and immediate.