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Journeys Rare and Familiar Light Up D.C. Stages

Extraordinary music is coming from the stages of Washington’s theaters this fall.

King of Birds

Aaron Posner’s production of “The Conference of the Birds,” at the Folger Shakespeare Theater through Sunday, has its swan song this week. This extraordinary production is a must-see for the season. It is an absolutely special, transporting night of theater.

“The Conference of the Birds” is a modern and gorgeous retelling of the 1,000-year-old classic Persian poem of the same name. It is the wise hoopoe bird who tells his fellow birds about the true king, the Simorgh, which means 30 birds in Persian. The hoopoe convinces the birds to come with him in his journey to find the Simorgh.

There is a catch, however, as there always is with a quest. The birds must leave their comfort zones to head into peril. The birds pass through seven dangerous and treacherous worlds before coming to the Simorgh — assuming the king exists at all.

Posner’s direction and Tom Teasley’s score are the perfect marriage of music and movement. The union of these two creative forces creates a magical atmosphere wherein the performers can switch from tightly wound avian pecking to the sinuous motion of lovers to the soaring, sweeping motion of flight.

“The Conference of the Birds” is a universal story, an allegory for the personal journey of life and discovering the self and the divine. It is haunting and inspiring, and at the end, the players and the audience come to realize that the Simorgh is a great mirror that reflects back the divine within each of us.

In Posner’s notes about the play, the director focuses on the poem’s connection with the Sufi tradition. The story of the hoopoe and the Simorgh is one of the origin stories of the Persian people, and school children across Iran learn the poem to this day. The imagery of birds, water, balance and reflection is spun throughout the rest of Persian poetry. This is the poem that tells the story of the Persian people writ large, cultures that span Iran, Afghanistan, India, Turkey and the entire Persian diaspora.

It is, after all, a culture where poetry and journey are critical to its understanding of itself. Conversely, it’s through performances such as those in “The Conference of the Birds” that a Western audience might leave with a more profound understanding of another culture.

Eliza Undone

Across town, a quintessential play about Western civilization, “My Fair Lady,” is playing at Arena Stage through Jan. 3. Eliza Doolittle is again struggling to find her voice with the help of the Professor Henry Higgins, but where “The Conference of the Birds” celebrates freedom and breaking free of cages, Eliza’s story is about choosing a life in the gilded cage.

This classic musical is a deeply flawed version of the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion.” In England, a person’s class identity is closely connected to language, and Doolittle’s accent is representative of the deep class divisions in the culture. Higgins, a brilliant brute, takes the young flower seller under his wing as a bet. In six months, he promises, he can pass her off as lady.

In the meantime, he berates the young woman, eventually breaking her as one would a colt. As often happens, the stage musical has been overshadowed by the film version. Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, who played Doolittle and Higgins, made the roles iconic and their own.

Unfortunately, Manna Nichols (Eliza) and Benedict Campbell (Higgins) can’t carry off the complexity of the story by the strength of their personalities.

This is, beneath its lovely Edwardian plumage, a dark story where Doolittle’s extreme makeover leaves her essentially homeless with a suitcase full of pretty clothes and few options. Where the lower-class Doolittle has a certain freedom of movement and autonomy of choice, by the end of the play she has neither. She is dependent. This transformation is symbolized by the caged bird at the side of the stage. The audience watches as Doolittle becomes the caged songbird.

The darkness of this story is made palatable in the film by the underlying love story and chemistry between the protagonists. In this version, however, Doolittle and Higgins share no chemistry to speak of and seem to be more like co-workers than potential lovers.

Neither Nichols nor Campbell were able to get at the deep flaws and complexities of their characters’ internal journey. Further, none of the main characters — Doolittle, Higgins or Alfred Doolittle — had a strong grasp of the English accent and dipped distractingly to their American voices.

There were three exceptions to the overall disappointment.

Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddy Eynsford-Hill injected his performance with a surprising level of psychological depth. By simply shooting an uncomfortable look across the stage after he realizes that the alcoholic Alfred Doolittle (James Saito) is Eliza’s father, we see him begin to understand the woman he claims to love. Rodriguez’s Freddy isn’t simply lovesick and pretty, he is complicated and sexual. In short, he is re-imagined.

Another high point of the musical is the wonderful ensemble. They are tightly directed and wonderfully exuberant. There is a moment early in the play where they erupt in a gorgeous percussive band. The ensemble gives this revival its major moments of humor and fun.

Finally, the music is wonderful, but it always is. It’s worth going just to sing along with.

But Molly Smith, one of the best directors we have in D.C., has let her cast and the audience down in this production.

Smith is known for pushing the boundaries, but she kept the musical too closely linked to the movie. She should have let her cast stretch and play within the confines of their characters. That way they might have rediscovered some of the complexities of the Shaw play that were lost the 1964 film version. Unfortunately, Smith’s struggle to reinvent this familiar story falls short.

Fun at the Pub

The Shakespeare Theater Company has taken over the top floor of the Bier Baron tavern to present “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.” This is the second production the company has heaved across the pond, and the city should give them collective thanks for doing so.

The play follows scholar Prudencia Hart across Scotland to a conference on a snowy December day and into the night of the winter solstice. The conference takes place in Kelso, a town in the Scottish borderland. The buttoned-up Hart is a traditionalist who collects ballads, not to deconstruct them like the rest of her colleagues, but to preserve them.

“I don’t study [ballads] to diminish them,” she says to herself at one point.

Like “The Conference of the Birds” and “My Fair Lady,” “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” is another tale of self-discovery and self-reflection.

Like “The Conference of the Birds,” this play is a poem, and it’s told as a ballad. It is about journeying through perilous lands — in this case, Prudencia must literally go through hell.

As in “My Fair Lady,” Prudencia’s journey is marked by a professorial relationship with a devilish man, but she must break free in order to discover her voice, literally her song.

The production is staged in a pub and the action takes place all around the audience. Director Wils Wilson, playwright David Greig and composer (and fabulous mustachioed actor) Alasdair Macrae have created a wonderful experience that should be stretched out as long as possible.

The pub opens an hour before the play begins. Get there early, grab a pint, talk to the performers as they mill about and let the music get under your skin. The atmosphere is so perfect and the world the actors create is so magical that you’ll never want to leave.

“The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” is up through Dec. 9.

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