Scott Palmer was stuck. The Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director had just auctioned to a patron the right to choose the annual summer Shakespeare production, and the choice was “Romeo and Juliet.”
The Hillsboro theater company had staged the popular perennial 10 years earlier, and Palmer hadn’t wanted to revisit it so soon. How could he do it differently?
In researching the play’s history, he found “astounding” similarities to a 12th-century epic poem by one of the most famous Muslim writers in history. He read a translation of Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s “Layla and Manjun” and was hooked. He knew he wanted to produce it.
Bag & Baggage’s resulting mashup of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Layla and Manjun,” which opens this weekend, represents, onstage and in its creation, an unprecedented cross-cultural collaboration.
Most Shakespeare plays are based on earlier tales, and in retracing the 16th-century playwright’s steps through several likely sources, Palmer discovered that Nizami’s poem, itself based on Arabic folk tales, had been recounted by various European authors.
“There’s no smoking gun,” Palmer said, “but we do know (Shakespeare) was reading Italian sources and those were heavily influenced by Persian masterpieces from the 11th and 12th centuries. There is just no question that ‘Layla and Majnun’ had a powerful, although indirect, influence on ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”
But Palmer soon decided staging the original 4,000-verse “Layla and Majnun” would be impractical, with its magical animals (“we didn’t have a gazelle budget”) and other supernatural effects. He decided to fuse the two stories.
“When you read the texts side by side, the parallels between the two tales are really astounding,” Palmer said, including metaphorical references to ravens and nightingales, Romeo/Majnun’s role in the accidental death of his friend Tybalt/Newfal, and much more.
Palmer also discovered big differences. “Layla is much more modern and feminist, much more headstrong and independent than Juliet,” he said.
That was among several discoveries that confounded Palmer’s preconceptions about Islamic culture and history, which plays a crucial role in Nizami’s work. “A huge part of this process has been challenging my own assumptions and prejudices … that have prevented me from truly understanding how connected we all are,” he said.
He invited commentary from “every Muslim theater company in America” and sought advice from scholars at Columbia University and at the University of Oregon. “No Aladdin!” cautioned Oregon’s Michael Malek Najjar, who teaches Arab-American theatre and performance. No flying carpets, belly dancers or genie lamps appear. But appropriate to the 12th-century Persian style and setting, the high-status Roman women, not the Muslims, are the ones who wear headscarves.
Palmer also hired Melory Mirashrafi, a Persian-American student at Linfield College and a Hillsboro High School graduate, as assistant director to help with, among other things, translation, pronunciation, insight into Persian culture and the role of Islamic faith in the characters’ lives.
“Being a part of a production that celebrates the history and literature of Persia, that embraces intersectionality, the connection between the cultures of the East and West, and that shows our audiences Iranian faces that aren’t painted by extremism or terrorism is absolutely crucial,” Mirashrafi said. She and her brother Avesta, a Hillsboro High junior, are in the cast along with another actor of Persian descent, and their parents provided advice during rehearsals.
In one scene, for example, Palmer worried whether one character insulting another with the term “dog” would be too offensive in an Islamic setting. The Mirashrafis assured him that in the context of Christian crusaders murdering “infidel” Muslims, such gross offense was precisely appropriate.
They also helped Palmer “bring together the poetic, lush, expressive blank verse of Nizami and the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare,” he said.
Palmer thinks his is the first attempt to merge Shakespeare’s play with one of its main inspirations, and to frame the story as a conflict not just between feuding families but between two religions.
The process of conjoining the stories also produced something equally valuable: a creative cross-cultural collaboration. “I have discovered a large and welcoming Muslim community in Washington County that invited us to Ramadan dinners, sent people to watch rehearsals to give us feedback, offered to let us borrow prayer rugs and prayer beads, and displayed incredible openness and eagerness to bring this forward to our predominantly white middle-class audience,” Palmer said.
“We wanted to start our first season in our new home with a bang,” Palmer said. “It is a convenient piece of great luck that ‘Layla and Majnun’ is not only so beautiful and epic and perfectly suited to our Shakespeare production, but also that it gave us chance to do something that’s never been done in Washington County theater before: to focus on the connections between the Muslim and Christian worlds.”