Rumi seeks release at Aga Khan Museum

The Caged Bird Sings reviewed
By Aparita Bhandari
Rouvan Silogix - Photo 2 - By Zeeshan Safdar

Rouvan Silogix. Photo by Zeeshan Safdar.

The Caged Bird Sings
Written by Rouvan Silogix, Rafeh Mahmud and Ahad Lakhani
Directed by Rafeh Mahmud
Modern Times Stage
June 10 – 26, 2024
Aga Khan Museum
Toronto, Ontario

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What is the purpose of life? What do we mean by love? How do we find salvation? When weighed down by deep questions about our existence, some of us may have turned to the writings of Jalal ad-Din (or Jalaluddin or Jalal-al-Din) Rumi, often referred to simply as Rumi. The Persian poet and Sufi mystic has inspired generations of readers with his poetry on love and separation that delve in devotion and ecstasy, including Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin during his conscious uncoupling from Gwyneth Paltrow. Rumi’s poems, which are also associated with the entrancing whirling of dervishes, have long been a fount of quotes once scribbled in notebooks or scraps of paper, as talismans for yourself or others.

The Caged Bird Sings, a play that bills itself as a “re-imagining and radical adaptation of Rumi’s Masnavi,” attempts to present a rumination on the mystic’s work by offering a “surreal piece [that] unfolds for the audience in the round.” As ambitious as it is abstract, the play manages to take the audience on a metaphorical journey in parts. However, an erratic performance and a lack of imaginative direction, results in a work not quite as revelatory as it aspires to be.

Navtej Sandhu, Mikaela, Lilly Davis, and Rouvan Silogix. Photo by Zeeshan Safdar.

The Caged Bird Sings is an original piece written by Rouvan Silogix, Rafeh Mahmud and Ahad Lakhani. Prior to the play’s performance on opening night, Lakhani spoke about the relevance of Rumi today – how the poet’s couplets transcend Instagram posts or bumper stickers, and the desire for the creators to engage with the philosophical meanings.

The play centres around three prisoners – two scientists and lovers, Rumi and Jin, and a mysterious man, Sal. They are locked in a gilded cage, quite literally. The stage set in the middle of the Aga Khan Museum’s courtyard featured an elaborate golden cage that enclosed two wooden beds on a carpeted floor, an assortment of props and a lighting arrangement that was inventively used.

Over three acts entitled Fortune (Kismat), Frenzy (Junoon) and Fanaa (a word that was untranslated in the play’s proceedings but in Sufi mysticism refers to the annihilation of self to live in and with God), the trio enacted smaller vignettes that veered between an undefined present and past, allegory and song, and reality and what may well be a fevered dream. The titles of some vignettes – each of which was enunciated by the three actors at the start of each scene, almost like a zikr (repetition) – are tongue-in-cheek: The Price You Pay Including Tax; Gin Rumi; Day 133, Flight Of The Bumblebee.

The play starts in earnest with Sal (Rouvan Silogix) already in the cage. Rumi (Mikaela Lily Davies) and Jin (Navtej Sandhu), who are also partners in a business making a love potion, are also thrown into jail. At first, Rumi and Jin try to figure out why they got imprisoned and how they can get out. Then they notice Sal, who tells them there’s no one else around who can hear their arguments to be released. Turns out Sal has been in the cage for thousands of years, after he lost his own love in the past. He cannot escape the cage, partially due to his own transgressions and cowardice.

Mikaela Lily Davies and Navtej Sandhu. Photo by Zeeshan Safdar.
Mikaela Lily Davies and Navtej Sandhu. Photo by Zeeshan Safdar.

As days pass like quicksand, it turns out that Jin is dying because of the love potion that Rumi has been microdosing Jin with. Sal offers Rumi and Jin an escape, through another potion. Whoever drinks the potion will have their heart turned to stone, and ultimately freed, Sal claims. However, he’s too afraid to drink the potion himself, and seeks a proxy for everyone’s liberation.

At first distracting, the wildly episodic nature of The Caged Bird Sings becomes intriguing. As the past and present converge at several moments, it offers a narrative device to navigate the complexities of Rumi’s thoughts on love, identity, existence and release. Other than naming the character Rumi and Jin, and Islamic architecture inspired cage (which looked like a masjid/mosque), there were no religious or spiritual overtones to the play. However, just like Sufism, one could equate that search of the beloved with a spiritual quest.

Can you, ultimately, escape this prison, whether literal or metaphorical, the play seemed to ask, especially through the song about a “broken little bird.” The play’s writing offers a compelling approach to Rumi. Like many other audience members, I have not meaningfully engaged with the writings of Rumi in the recent past. I was left with many questions, trying to jog my own memory about the scholarship around his work.

The acting, on the other hand, was a mixed bag. Both Davies and Sandhu brought passion and intensity to their roles as Rumi and Jin. Their love story and relationship as partners in a shadowy business drew you in slowly, as they railed against the caged environment or delighted in each other’s passion and person. Silogix, on the other hand, was more of a distraction – which seemed partially intentional. Although Sal claims to be a king in the past, he comes across more as a buffoon. But unlike the court jester who speaks the truth in the face of deluded authority, Sal ends up coming across more as an ill-conceived foil.

There were moments that truly entertained; everyone laughed at the vignette featuring corporate monkeys. We all know what it feels like to be monkeys clacking away at our keyboards, oblivious to the world around us. Even then, my eyes kept following Davies as the intern, who truly committed to the bit. And then there were moments that flummoxed, like the whirling towards the end, which seemed like a throwaway allusion to dervishes rather than truly being in a state of trance.

The site-specific nature of the play was similarly diverting. On the one hand, the setting sun and the acoustics of the space offered up an opportunity to include those elements. Rumi and Jin’s anguish reverberated through the confines of the courtyard. The approach of dusk and lighting up of the cage offered an emotional sense of the passage of time. But it also offered up another possibility – could the courtyard not have been the cage? Did the cage have to be so literal?

Though not revelatory in experience, The Caged Bird Sings offers a path to (re)discover Rumi that’s inventive and exploratory. And for that, it must be praised.

Aparita Bhandari
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto.
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