A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim decide to compare their dreams.
That's not the first line of a joke but rather the subject of a teaching story passed down from Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic whose poetry is among the most widely read in the world today.
The story, which also features Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and a dispute over a piece of halvah, was one of the poems and tales retold Wednesday evening by Peter Rogen, a former actor and retired communications consultant who has spent the last three years bringing Rumi's legacy to the stage.
Rogen joined acclaimed vocalist and musician Amir Alan Vahab [pictured] and four dancers, who performed the traditional whirling dance of the Mevlevi Sufis, to present "A Celebration of Rumi," a free performance at the University of Albany's Performing Arts Center Wednesday.
Rumi's poetry, most famously translated and spoken by the poet and translator Coleman Barks, is vivid, passionate, even sensual -- as Rogen told the full house, it is all about love, for God and for the God within us all. Rogen, who spent two years performing with the Helen Hayes Equity Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before going on to a 25-year career as an international business consultant, has a conversational style of delivery that befits the timeless quality of Rumi's poetry.
Yet his selections Wednesday night were not among the poet's most affecting works, nor did his voice -- mellow and mellifluous though it is -- do full justice to the transporting potential of Rumi's words. Most of the transporting was done by Vahab, who accompanied the recitations on the ney flute, frame drum and sitar, and sang ancient Persian and Sufi songs in Farsi.
The four whirling dervishes, all from the U.S., included Rupa Cousins, Christopher Briggs and two dancers who each go by one Sufi name only: Hafizullah and Arsalaan. Dressed in white robes and tall hats in the Mevlevi style, they turned and turned, skirts belling outward, arms held gently curved in the air, heads slightly tilted. It's not so much a dance as a mesmerizing meditation in motion -- which, combined with the poetry and the entrancing strains of the traditional instruments, created a somewhat soporific effect.
Rumi's poetry, and the songs and music from his time, have been passed down now over seven centuries, with the proscenium stage as a fairly recent venue for their transmission.
A theater doesn't seem the most natural forum for these powerful words and music, yet those who keep the oral tradition alive deserve, at the very least, our gratitude.