Cassie Greer

‘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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“A lot of theaters do this show looking very French 1950s, with lots of pink and gold,” remarked Bag&Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer at Sunday’s talkback post-Parfumerie.

And why wouldn’t they? The title suggests Frenchness, elegance, and putting on airs (wink), and the various rebrands the play has inspired—You’ve Got Mail, She Loves Me, The Shop around the Corner—are certainly warm and schmaltzy enough to countenance a general pink-and-gold glow.

But B&B’s version, taking a textual cue from Miklos Laszlo’s original play set in 1930s Budapest, plays it a little cooler and deeper, not just with an austere and neutral set, but with characters taking a few beats between quips for silent contemplation. Considering that comparatively few of the script’s lines are devoted to perfume or toiletries, and many more are directed at the complexities of business and personal relationships and a frank assessment of life goals, I submit to future producers yet another fresh title for the same fare, complete with a retail pun: “Taking Stock.”

A humming retail environment holds contains this charming split narrative that's less about perfume than it is about personal lives.

A humming retail environment contains this charming comedy that’s less about perfume than it is about personal lives.

“Wake up! Your life has passed you by!”

“Do you think I’m doing the right thing?…There’s always just a shadow of a doubt.”

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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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Bag & Baggage’s ‘The Best of Everything’: Full Frontal Female

Despite strong performances, woman-centric production ultimately fails to fully flesh out its female characters.

By BRETT CAMPBELL AND MARIA CHOBAN

Bag & Baggage Productions has trumpeted its new production of The Best of Everything as a triumph of female theater: a play adapted by a woman (Julie Kramer) from a novel by a woman (Rona Jaffe’s 1958 book by the same title), directed by a woman (Michelle Milne), mostly designed by women (costumes: Melissa Heller, scenic: Megan Wilkerson, lighting: Molly Stowe) and starring mostly women.

With all that estrogen involved, and the source material’s proto-feminist take on the sexist ‘50s American office culture, you’d expect this new production (the first on the West Coast) to explode the stereotypes of women that the novel and play strive so hard to puncture. But it actually succeeds mostly in one major respect that’s not the one the play intends.

Bag&Baggage Productions' "The Best of Everything." Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag&Baggage Productions’ “The Best of Everything.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly everyone had feminist intentions. The author of 16 books (one titled Mr. Right is Dead), Brooklyn-born Jaffe founded an organization to promote women writers, and, decades before Mad Men, BoE, along with other seminal — make that ovular — books of the era like The Feminine Mystique, published five years later, won notoriety for its scathing portrait of a sexist society’s effect on the women it repressed. Jaffe’s book traced several characters in a New York publishing firm similar to the one she worked in herself when she wrote the novel.

The play, which premiered in 2012, presents characters representative of the era’s various female stereotypes — the naive Midwesterner shamed for her normal sex drive (spunkily played by Kaia Hillier in one of the show’s best performances); the driven, career-oriented Radcliffe grad (the central character, portrayed by B&B resident actor Cassie Greer) who embodies the coming second wave feminist generation; the icy, bitchy executive (Morgan Cox’s Amanda Farrow) who has to repress her humanity and femininity to claw her way near (but never all the way to) the top in an aggressive man’s world; the superficially sexually adventurous Gregg Adams (played by B&B resident actor Arianne Jacques) who secretly longs for a traditional marriage; the prudish repressed virgin Mary Agnes Russo (hilariously played by B&B resident actor Jessi Walters) who derides women who actually acknowledge the natural sexual appetites that she herself appears afraid to unleash. In her program note for this West Coast premiere, director Milne promises that the arc of the play will show the reality of the women busting out of those cultural stereotypes.

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Bag & Baggage: That ‘70s Show

"Six Gentlepersons of Verona" gets groovy with un-famous Shakespeare

At the talkback session after Sunday’s matinee performance of Six Gentlepersons of Verona, an audience member asked director Scott Palmer why he wanted to stage a play that’s widely considered — including, according to his program notes, Palmer himself — to be among Shakespeare’s weakest.

“Because I wanted to!” grinned Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director, a confessed Shakespeare geek who enjoys nothing more than poring through historical source material and approaching the plays from novel directions. He elaborated: like many directors, Palmer wants to get through Shakespeare’s entire canon (much as conductors crave complete Beethoven or Mahler symphony cycles or Wagner’s Ring operas); Verona, possibly Shakespeare’s earliest comedy, contains the seeds and even some of the plot devices of his later masterpieces (a balcony scene a la Romeo and Juliet, transformative encounters in the woods like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and others, a pre-Othello jealousy plot); its very dramatic weaknesses pose a challenge that any ambitious director wants to solve, and so on.

All good reasons … for a director. But what about the audience? Why should we pay a farthing to sit through a couple hours of second-rate Shakespeare? Are we mere canon-fodder?

Cassie Greer and Clara-Liis Hillier star in "The Six Gentlepersons of Verona." running through March 22. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Cassie Greer and Clara-Liis Hillier star in “The Six Gentlepersons of Verona.” running through March 22. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag & Baggage’s new production, which runs through March 22 at Hillsboro’s historic Venetian Theatre, provides some persuasive answers, and not just the unbearably cute, scene stealing pug.

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