THEATER | With graceful goofiness, Pangea’s “Conference of the Birds” puts Sufism at center stage

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Pangea World Theater’s Conference of the Birds uses stylized movement, storytelling, and music in an ambitious retelling of a Sufi poem. The poem, written by Farid Ud-Din Attar in 12th century Persia, tells the story of 30 birds who take a great journey in search of their king, only to discover they are the king themselves. The program notes that Attar wrote Conference of the Birds about Sufism, a doctrine propounded by the mystics of Islam.

Meena Natarajan’s translation doesn’t shy away from exploring the Sufi themes, but at the same time her story-driven script is never bogged down by philosophy. There were a number of children who attended the performance on Friday night, and they stayed focused for the whole hour and a half.

The ensemble, under the direction of Dipankar Mukherjee, is in motion for the entire performance. The large cast take up the Avalon Theater on Lake Street, which has been transformed into a thrust stage for this performance, with larger-than-life characters. The birds flap their wings, waddle on their bird feet, nod their beaks, and soar together throughout the piece. The performers, who for the most part aren’t dancers, embrace the goofiness of playing birds with dignity and grace, although on Friday’s performance a few of them seemed understandably tired for the last half hour.

conference of the birds, a play directed by dipanker mukherjee. presented by pangea world theater through march 29 at the avalon theater, 1500 e. lake st., minneapolis. for tickets ($15) and information, see pangeaworldtheater.org.

As Hoopoe, Harry Waters Jr. leads the birds on their journey toward their king, the Simurgh. Waters, a charismatic performer, handles the spiritual journey of his character with a mastery of breath and focus.

Along their journey toward the Simurgh, the Hoopoe tells stories to the other birds to help them understand the way of the Simurgh. The actors transform into slaves and princesses, bats and fortunetellers to illustrate various teachings of the leader they are seeking. Thus, the story uses metaphor to teach the tenets of Sufism. The birds learn that they must destroy the self, and all the pride that goes along with it. They also learn that they must submit themselves to passionate love, for that is the way to truly lose oneself.

Dan Rein and Aida Shahghasemi accompany the actors with beautiful traditional Iranian music. Shahghasemi’s vocals in particular help guide the story along. Mike Wangen’s lighting design is also noteworthy, creating a feeling of movement against the expansive white stage.

Conference of the Birds runs through March 29 at the Avalon Theater (home of In the Heart of the Beast). It is a great play to see if you want to learn about Sufism, but it is also a kid-friendly performance that is as entertaining as it is educational.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.

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