Scott Palmer

“Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’” review: Dickens framed

Bag&Baggage Productions’ holiday comedy shows the writer creating his most famous story -- and getting upstaged by it

Charles Dickens was a rock star. On his reading tours in both England and America, fans crowded the venues to hear him read excerpts from his novels, cheered his speeches about social issues.

Charles Dickens was a clown. Yes, the author of The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield and the rest was also the most popular English language novelist of the 19th century, but he was also known to his friends as a total cutup who loved assuming comic personae and telling uproarious stories, most of which he made up himself.

Charles Dickens was also, therefore, an actor. He liked playing roles so much that he acted in his friends’ plays and even wrote his novels by acting out the various characters in his studio to capture their voices.

Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’ continues through December 23. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Such an inherently theatrical backstory proved irresistible to Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer, an inveterate historical researcher who in 2010 used Dickens’s life story (drawn from his diary and remembrances by family and contemporaries) to create his original comic take on the Victorian English author’s heartwarming Christmas classic. The revived Charles Dickens Writes “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 23 at The Vault theatre. (The information above comes from the company’s characteristically comprehensive study guide to the play)

Palmer’s adaptation — really an old story within a new play — has the added advantage of doubling the show’s appeal. It presents enough of Dickens’s original 1843 Scrooge story to entertain kids and others who are experiencing the holiday classic for the first time in a long time, or ever, while giving those who know the original by heart get an entirely new story around it. But although the combination makes for a generally entertaining holiday show, that framing narrative resembles one of those massive, Dickens-era Victorian picture frames, so ornate that they sometimes distract from the picture they surround. Even so, the show has so much going for it that it makes an easy holiday recommendation.

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‘Farndale’ review: slight drag

Bag&Baggage Productions' cross-dressed Brit-com theater spoof offers low humor in high heels

The show begins before the show begins. As the audience gradually trickles in from the lobby and bar, a dumpy, worried looking, Chaplin-esque figure wanders the spare set, making adjustments to the chairs, side table, and other props. While audience members take their seats, some chatting with each other in the aisles, some don’t even notice a molding suddenly falling off a wall. The beleaguered little prop man frowns, and with help from some unwitting audience members, undertakes repairs. Then a rather ample — and amply bewigged and be-pearled dowager — appears, loudly handing out programs.

Norman Wilson, Patrick Spike, and Jeremy Sloan play Thelma Greenwood, Phoebe Reece, and Merdeces Blower in Bag&Baggage’s produc on of The Farndale Avenue… Murder at Checkmate Manor. Photo: Casey Campbell.

Welcome to Bag&Baggage Productions’ The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Murder at Checkmate Manor, the farce-within-a-farce shambling and stumbling across the stage through October at Hillsburg’s, er, Hillsboro’s The Vault. Before the evening is done, audiences will suffer through faux French, egregious wordplay, spoonerisms, malfunctioning props, dysfunctional malaprops, blown cues, stilted acting, overacting, wandering facial hair makeup, spotlight hogging, backstage cattiness, a failed fashion show, karaoke, an invisible canine, cheesy strobe effects, and a not entirely Thrilling Michael Jackson flashback.

I hasten to add that the parade of ludicrous ineptitude is entirely intentional on Bag&Baggage’s part. One in a series of ten popular 1970s farces perpetrated by the British team of Walter Zerlin Jr. and David McGillivray that spoof earnest but hopelessly incompetent amateur theater companies, Farndale is a play that tries, and alas only occasionally succeeds, in making good comedy out of deliberately bad theater.

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Spinning into Butter review:  white noise

Bag & Baggage Productions' season opener should spark needed conversations about race

“It is a play,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer in the program notes, “that deals with well-meaning, liberally minded, white people dealing with issues of racism in a way that I think is hugely relevant to me personally and to the community of Hillsboro.”

I’d go further: Spinning into Butter, playing through September 24 at Bag & Baggage’s cool, cozy new home The Vault, is a production that should be seen by anyone in the greater Portland community who’s at all interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. Especially if you’re willing to set your own preconceptions aside for a couple of hours.

Carlos Trujillo and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

To say it’s important is not to say it’s a great play, though. Dramatically flawed and somewhat dated, Spinning may be more important for the conversations it sparks than for what happens onstage. However, one thing that actually does happen onstage — Kymberli Colbourne’s fully realized, yet understated leading performance — should also start a conversation, about the best performance on a Portland stage in this young theater season.

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Bag & Baggage Vaults into the Future

Theater company’s new venue provides new opportunities and signals new directions

At 9:30 pm last November 5 — which happened to be Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating the planned bombing of the British Parliament — Bag&Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer got the phone call he’d been dreading for years. the Venetian Theatre, the company’s downtown Hillsboro home, had been sold, forcing the company to move its penultimate show of the season to a small venue and to cancel its big season-ending moneymaker, the ever-popular Noises Off.

The resulting $80,000-plus loss stunned a company that had always run in the black — a rarity in Portland-area theater. But after an intensely stressful winter, which Palmer said he might not have survived without other company members stepping up to take on new roles, the company survived — barely — because Palmer, aware that a sale could happen, had already taken steps to secure a new venue much better suited to the plucky company’s style and audience.

The Vault theater opens this week in downtown Hillsboro.

Just steps down Main Street from the Venetian and purpose-built for 21st century theater, the former Wells Fargo building, now called The Vault Theater & Event Space, officially opens this week with an open house celebration Saturday afternoon featuring tours, discussions and more. The company’s first show there, which opened this week, demonstrates just what a tremendous transformation the new space will spark in a company that, despite its hitherto untrendy location, is among Oregon’s most artistically accomplished.

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‘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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“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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