Bag&Baggage Productions

‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’ review: fertile fusion

Bag & Baggage Productions' new mashup of Shakespearean drama and Persian epic brings the best of both worlds

In Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene, Juliet implores Romeo to “refuse thy name / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet….Romeo, doff thy name, And for that name which is no part of thee Take all myself.”

And he replies “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized / Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

Those lines also appear in Bag & Baggage Productions’ new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, playing through August 5 at Hillsboro’s Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza. But the identity crisis starts even earlier.

“Call me not Romeo,” he insists to his friends. “My name is Majnun.”

They call him Romeo anyway, and Majnun, because here, he’s both. Just like the play they’re in, many of the characters Bag and Baggage Productions’s new Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun) go by two names.

Arianne Jacques as Juliet and Nicholas Granato as Romeo in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Majnun/Romeo’s beloved, too, has another name.

All the radiance of the morning was Juliet. She was the most beautiful garden, Majnun a torch of longing.
She planted the rose-bush,
He watered it with his tears.
What can we say of Juliet?
As dark as night the color of her hair
And her eyes like an Arabian moon.
The night we call Layl, so we can call her Layla. Slender as a cypress tree,
Her eyes could pierce a thousand hearts
With a single glance, with one flicker
Of her eyelashes, she could have slain the world.

She was a jasmin-bush in spring,
Majnun a meadow in autumn.
She was a glass of wine, scented with musk. Majnun had not touched the wine,
Yet he was drunk with its sweet smell.

It would have been easy for B&B artistic director Scott Palmer’s new original adaptation to use the Persian names from Layla and Majnun, the epic poem he’s melded with Romeo and Juliet, as mere aliases that give Shakespeare’s ardent teens exactly what they’re asking for: new identities.

But like the doomed lovers portrayed in both Shakespeare’s play and one of its primary sources, Persian poet Nizami’s half a millennium older epic,  Romeo/Layla is a mashup of both stories, not a substitution of one for the other. (For more background on the show, read ArtsWatch’s preview.)

The big question with any kind of artistic fusion is: will the two elements interfere with or amplify each other? No one is better qualified to pull this kind of thing off than Palmer, a research nerd, particularly with Shakespeare, to whose work he’s devoted years of study and staging. Palmer also has experience with Shakespearean fusion, like Bag & Baggage’s masterful 2012 Kabuki Titus, which used a traditional Japanese drama form to turn one of Shakespeare’s weakest creations into something far more compelling than it had any right to be.

Here, he wisely drew on the expertise of scholars and community members knowledgeable about the cultural, religious and historical context this show embraces. The result: a production that benefits from the best of both its sources — the lush beauty and dramatic depth of Nizami’s poetic setting, and the equally lyrical words and page-turning plot that has always made Romeo & Juliet so popular. In finding success by smartly incorporating so many outside influences, including in its cast and creative team, the show also offers a lesson in the value of cultural pluralism that transcends theater.

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‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’: cross cultural combination

Bag and Baggage's new theatrical mashup of Shakespearean and Persian classic tales involved collaboration across cultures

Scott Palmer was stuck. The Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director had just auctioned off the choice of its annual summer Shakespeare production to a patron, and this year’s choice was… Romeo and Juliet.

Palmer silently groaned. They’d staged the popular perennial ten years earlier and Palmer, an expert on the Bard of Avon’s work, didn’t want to revisit it so soon. Now he had no choice. How could he do it differently than before?

Lawrence Siulagi as the Sayyed in Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Romeo & Juliet/ Layla & Majnun.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Palmer, an inveterate Shakespeare nerd whose MO involves plunging deeply into historical and dramaturgical research, started investigating the play’s provenance. He and learned that one of the most famous plays in Western literature was actually based on a 12th century epic poem by one of the most famous Muslim writers in history. He got a translation of Layla and Majnun by Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), read it — and was instantly hooked. He knew he wanted to produce it.

But Palmer quickly realized that couldn’t do it alone. “It’s the greatest epic piece of Muslim literature. I immediately realized I was in over my head,” Palmer recalls. “I had no clue about 12th century Persian culture.” He needed help.

And he found much of it in a surprising place — his theater’s own home of Hillsboro. Both onstage and in creation, Palmer’s brand new mashup of Romeo and Juliet and Layla and Majnun, which opens this weekend, represents a cultural combination — and cross cultural collaboration.

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‘The Drowning Girls’ review: Resurfacing violence’s victims

Bag & Baggage’s revelatory story of the first celebrity serial killing puts the spotlight on the women, not their murderer

Bag and Baggage Productions sure got the timing right for its production of The Drowning Girls. We arrived at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre opening night amid a deluge, only to hear the eerie recorded echoes of dripping water and see beautiful projected aquatic imagery against the back wall behind the stage.

Water, water everywhere; the three actors spend much of their stage time in Victorian bathtubs, their hair and bathing gowns drenched. The magnificently minimal set features a trio of three-story tall figurative shower curtains. In this third Bluebeard story of the season (following Shaking the Tree and the Oregon Symphony’s productions), water has replaced blood as a signifier of wife murder.

Those potent production elements, including the gripping acting and directing, make The Drowning Girls overcome a flawed though frequently fascinating script to produce a wonderfully immersive theatrical experience.

Bag & Baggage's 'The Drowning Girls' runs through October at Hillsboro's Venetian Theatre. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage’s ‘The Drowning Girls’ runs through October at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

The timing is apt in another way. This show about the social sexism that contributed to the serial murders of three women opened just hours after a celebrity presidential candidate revealed his serial sexist violation of today’s women.

Of course, Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer couldn’t have known what was going to happen at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign months ago when B&B chose this play for its fall production. But while the scale of the two violations a century apart differs, the underlying social attitudes that contributed to them remain, as Palmer put it, “sickeningly relevant.” Like The Shining or Silence of the Lambs (though less gruesome than either), it’s that rare Halloween/Day of the Dead show that really makes you think and sympathize instead of just scaring you.

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“The Graduate: review: Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

Superficial script undermines Bag & Baggage's production of the theatrical version of a '60s classic

Many of us probably fondly remember The Graduate as a tale of idealistic young lovers Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson triumphing over a corrupt, plastic Cold War American establishment embodied by Elaine’s alcoholic mother, Mrs. Robinson.

But Terry Johnson’s lumbering 2000 theatrical adaptation of Charles Webb’s 1963 novel makes the story seem surprisingly dated, the ostensible main characters superficial.

St. Cyr and Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions' 'The Graduate.' Photo: Casey Campbell.

St. Cyr and Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘The Graduate.’ Photo: Casey Campbell.

What Bag & Baggage Productions‘ staging, playing this month in Hillsboro, does have, though, is some deft comedy and a fascinating Mrs. Robinson who’s almost worth the price of admission, despite being onstage for only about half the show. Rather than merely embodying hypocritical society’s denial of both Ben and Elaine’s wishes — the resistance they must overcome to find fulfillment — she becomes a fierce, tragic heroine who’s ahead of her time.

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‘Emma’ & ‘Grand Concourse’ reviews: Instigating women

Characters in Bag & Baggage and Artists Repertory Theatre productions pit good intentions against hard reality

The upstart Portland Trail Blazers are leading the greatest team in NBA history at halftime. It’s the crucial game in the second round of the playoffs.  No one expected the young Blazers to even be here. How could I tear myself away to hear repressed Victorians prattle on about who’s gonna marry whom??

Besides, haven’t we more important things to worry about — homelessness, human-caused climate change, the potential for the Greatest Upset in NBA Playoff History?

And yet, Bag&Baggage’s production of Jane Austen’s Emma held promise. Hardly anyone pulls off snappier dialogue than Austen, not even NBA broadcast commentators Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal or Kenny Smith.  So grumbling only slightly, I headed for Hillsboro.

Cassie Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage's 'Emma.' Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Clara Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage’s ‘Emma.’ Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Unfortunately, Michael Fry’s 1996 stage adaptation falls victim to the problems that often plague translations of art from their original medium. In trying to remain faithful to Austen’s novel, Fry bogged down the stage adaptation with slow-playing exposition, just like the many NBA teams who failed to successfully adapt to new rules intended to enliven the game. Here I was watching the equivalent of the Memphis Grizzlies onstage while my mind kept drifting to the Moda Center and the Golden State Warriors with their high-flying offense.

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‘Moby Dick, Rehearsed’ review: Welles’ whale tale

Bag&Baggage Productions' staging of Orson Welles's 'Moby-Dick, Rehearsed' is a qualified triumph of imagination over obsession

Moby-Dick isn’t a novel, it is an entire imaginative world. It is massive, bulky, colossal, terrifying, majestic and ultimately unfathomable. It is the physical representation of one man’s will, one artist’s transcendent vision, an entire internal universe externalized…”

So writes Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer on the company blog. Of course, the “one man” he’s referring to is author Herman Melville, who transformed his own obsession with the particulars of whaling and the fictional obsession of a foolhardy sea captain, Ahab, into the 1851 epic that eventually (though not initially) came to be regarded as an American classic.

But obsession and imagination also describe Ahab himself, obsessed by a whale and the manifold metaphors it represents, not to mention the minutiae of whaling. They characterize the great American film director Orson Welles, obsessed (as he was by so many other hugely ambitious projects he started but never quite pulled off) by Melville’s novel, which he spent years transforming into the play, Moby Dick, Rehearsedwhich the company is staging at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre this month. They also apply to Palmer, one of Oregon’s and perhaps America’s most artistically ambitious theater artists, himself.

“Who in their right mind would decide that Moby Dick was appropriate source material for a play? Only a maniacal genius like Orson Welles, really. B&B has a long history of doing staged adaptations of American novels, and this just felt like such a perfect fit for us and our style of work,” Palmer said in a question & answer interview on the B&B website. “That unapologetic ambition, that willingness to take a massive risk and potentially fail spectacularly — that feels very Bag&Baggage to me.” You might say Palmer is obsessed with transforming unlikely material, from Shakespeare’s worst plays to Arthur Miller’s weighty The Crucible and many others, into stage triumphs. He usually succeeds.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents "Moby Dick, Rehearsed" at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage Productions presents “Moby Dick, Rehearsed” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Neither Ahab nor Melville nor Welles nor Palmer let the challenges of their tasks daunt them. Ahab caught his prey, but it cost him his life and those of his crew. Melville’s novel was widely regarded as a crazy failure in its time, and its overabundance of non dramatic material still repels many readers. Welles’s misguided attempt to turn so inward-gazing a novel as Moby Dick into compelling stage drama amounted to hunting a white whale; as Palmer acknowledged in a pre-show talk, it’s perhaps a good thing that Welles devoted himself to filmmaking rather than playwriting.

In nevertheless choosing to stage Welles’s whale folly (in his centennial year), Palmer again plays the white knight, this time trying to save the white whale. Does he catch the object of his obsession in this new production and redeem Welles’s hubristic vision? Like the others, it’s a foredoomed, magnificent failure that, if you can stick with it long enough, you ultimately can’t let go of.

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Bag & Baggage’s “Kristmas Karol”: Confounding expectations

Final installment in creative theater company's 1940s radio spoof holiday series offers expected laughs -- and unexpected twist

Parody, Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer says, gives us the best of both worlds: it reminds us of why we love the thing being spoofed, and it gives us the surprise and laughter of a new take on it. The humor comes from invoking those tired and true expectations, and then confounding them.

That combustible combo fuels B&B’s trilogy of holiday parodies, now complete with the world premiere of the third installment, A KBNB Kristmas Karol, which runs through December 23 at downtown Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. We all know Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life (the targets of the company’s first two spoofs in 2013 and 2014) and this year’s Dickensian tale, so we laugh at how the plots and characters in Palmer’s original scripts scuttle our expectations of heartwarming holiday sentiment, while fondly remembering Jimmy Stewart, Natalie Wood and whoever’s playing Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim in this year’s middle school production.

Phillip Berns, Peter Schuyler, Andrew Beck, Jessi Walters, Clara Hillier, Gary Strong, Jeremy Sloan and Jessica Geffen as the cast of KBNB Radio Classics. Photo: Casey Campbell Photograph.

Jessica Geffen (Lana North-Berkshire-Whiteside) butchers A Christmas Carol as the cast of KBNB Radio Classics look on. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

But now that the Hillsboro-based company’s frequently hilarious series has entered its third year, it, too has attained the status of holiday institution — which means the parody itself is ripe for parody. And in this sublimely silly final installment, B&B confounds our expectations again, capping the trilogy with a triumph. You don’t need to have seen either of the first two installments to howl at this one, which makes a satisfying conclusion to one of Oregon’s most hilarious original theater series.

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