Bag & Baggage’s artistic director, Scott Palmer, is notorious for his creative Shakespearian adaptations, but this summer the innovative Hillsboro theatrical company is truly breaking new ground. Palmer’s current production is not so much an adaptation as a mash-up, combining perhaps the best known play in all of Western Civilization and a lovely tale with deep roots in the ancient Middle East: hence, Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun). The result is a sometimes jarring, but ultimately charming, twist on the traditional tale of star-crossed lovers that audiences have come to expect.
Entering Tom McCall Plaza, one thing is immediately clear – we’re not in Verona anymore. The exotic strains of Arab music and the gigantic, ornate tent immediately transport us to a fictional multicultural Persia where Roman Christians (shades of the Crusades?) interact, and sometimes clash, with the local Bedouin tribes. Lady Capulet, her daughter Juliet, and cousin Tybalt are emissaries from the Emperor Constantine. The local royalty includes the Sayyid, a direct descendant of Muhammad, who is determined to live in peace with the Roman newcomers. However, the instantaneous chemistry between Juliet and the Sayyid’s son Romeo/Majnun sets up an irresolvable conflict – neither parent considers the other’s child as a remotely suitable mate for their own offspring. The long-standing feud between the Capulets and the Montagues in Shakespeare’s play is replaced by a new feud between the Christian Tybalt and the Moslem Newfal/Mercutio (many characters bear two names); Tybalt slays Mercutio, leading to Tybalt’s death at the hands of Romeo and setting up all that follows.
Although much of the original Shakespearean dialogue is retained, the play is definitely not just Romeo and Juliet in a new setting. The second act is especially distinctive, not just on a superficial level (e.g., Juliet/Layla marrying Paris) but on an emotional level – the two parents, when pressed, show much more compassion than their Italian counterparts, and Majnun’s death provides a lovely spiritual touch at the conclusion.
Despite the complexity introduced by the production’s multiple origins, it is remarkably easy to follow the story. It helps that there is an omniscient narrator, storyteller Gary Ploski, to fill in some of the blanks. However, it is the principal actors who really tell the tale – despite being outdoors, with some inevitable noise pollution, every line is delivered distinctly, paced slowly enough to allow the audience to comprehend while permitting the actors to match each word with the requisite physical accompaniment – both fight scenes and love scenes really tell themselves.
Two Bag & Baggage newcomers particularly shine – Nicholas Granato (Romeo/Majnun) and Mandana Khoshnevisan (Lady Capulet). Granato’s abrupt and peripatetic shifts from elation, passion, and despair capture the love stricken madness of his character, differentiating him (and the story) from the Shakespearean Romeo, and provide much-needed comic relief. Khoshnevisan offers additional shots of humor playing the protective, frustrated, status-seeking uber-momma without making a mockery of her fierce maternal love.
Bag & Baggage mainstays Cassie Greer (as Romeo’s cousin Benvolia) and Arianne Jacques (as Juliet/Layla) are, not surprisingly, superb. Jacques manages to capture the mercurial mood swings of a fourteen year old in the grips of first love, with just a touch of petulance toward her mother, a touch of the tease toward her lover, and mulishly rigid rejection of her husband’s very real ardor. Greer’s Benvolia is very much the level-headed peacemaker, and she plays the role of sensible (if unsuccessful) diplomat deftly – but with the added fun of watching her scornfully fend off Mercutio’s clumsy advances.
Other highlights include Signe Larsen’s athletic and exciting fight choreography (nowhere better than in her performance as Tybalt) and Melissa Heller’s costumes. With a story set in a fictional place and time, and an unlikely mix of characters, Heller provides imaginative attire that captures the spirit of two very different worlds. Assistant Director Melory Mirashrafi and her family served as invaluable consultants who helped Palmer, his actors, and his audience to overcome inaccurate preconceptions about how the Middle Eastern characters “ought” to behave, and contributed immeasurably to this beautiful and unusual fictional and cultural blend.
Bag & Baggage’s production of Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun) runs through August 5, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E. Main Street, Hillsboro.