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?
Palmer started researching the play’s history, 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 Manjun by Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), read it — and was instantly hooked. He knew he wanted to produce it.
But Palmer quickly realized that he 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 Manjun, which opens this weekend, represents a cultural combination — and cross cultural collaboration.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays are adaptations based on earlier tales, and in retracing the classically educated playwright’s steps back through several likely earlier sources, Palmer discovered that Nizami Ganjavi’s poem — itself constructed, Shakespeare style, from on earlier Persian and Arabic folk tales — had been recounted by various European authors.
“There’s no smoking gun,” Palmer explains, “but we do know he was reading Italian sources and those were heavily influenced by Persian masterpieces from the 11th and 12 centuries. There is just no question that Layla and Majnun had a powerful, although indirect, influence on Romeo and Juliet.”
Nizami’s 4,000-verse poem about the tragic consequences of the feud between families also inspired famous tragic lovestories like Wagner’s opera Tristan and Idolde and Eric Clapton’s classic song “Layla.” (Nizami’s verse from the story provided lyrics for another song, “I Am Yours,” on the same Derek & the Dominoes album.) The basic story may even stretch back even earlier, to ancient Greece and before.
But Palmer soon decided staging the original Layla and Majnun, with its magical animals (“we didn’t have a gazelle budget”) and other supernatural effects, would be impractical. He decided to create a fusion of the two stories, scouring them for similarities. He found plenty.
“When you read the texts side by side, the parallels between the two tales are really astounding,” Palmer explains, including metaphorical references to ravens, nightingales, light smoke and feathers of lead, Romeo/Majnun’s role in the accidental death of his friend Tybalt/Newfal, and much more.
He also found some big differences. “Layla is much more modern and feminist, much more headstrong and independent than Juliet,” he says, threatening violence in rebuffing the advances of the husband her family has arranged for her. “I will die before I let you touch me,” she says.
That was only one discovery that confounded Palmer’s own preconceptions about Islamic culture and history, which plays a crucial role in the Sunni Muslim poet Nizami’s work. “I have never had an experience of working on a show that did more to illuminate my own ignorance than in the past few months,” he acknowledges. “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 sought advice throughout the project from knowledgeable sources, including feedback from “every Muslim theater company in America” and scholars at Columbia University and at the University of Oregon. “No Aladdin!” cautioned UO prof Michael Najjar, professor of theatre arts at the University of Oregon who is a director, playwright, and scholar of Arab American drama and who had earlier written about the dangers of cultural appropriation in a recent play produced by Portland Center Stage. No flying carpets, belly dancers or genie lamps appear. But appropriate to the 12th century Persian style and setting, it’s the high-status Roman woman, not the Muslims, who wear headscarves.
Palmer found more help even closer to home. He’d worked with Melory Mirashrafi, a Persian-American student at Linfield College and a graduate of Hillsboro High School, in an earlier B&B production. He hired her 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,” she says. Her brother Avesta, a Hillsboro High junior, is also in the cast along with another actor of Persian descent, and her 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 at a time and place when Christian crusaders were murdering “infidel” Muslims, such gross offense is precisely appropriate.
They also helped Palmer “bring together the poetic, lush, expressive blank verse of Nizami and the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare,” he says. All together, “what we have is NOT Romeo and Juliet, and it is NOT Layla and Majnun, but rather an amalgamation of the two.”
Palmer, who will direct Bag & Baggage’s outdoor production, believes his new adaptation is the first such attempt to merge Shakespeare’s play about the Montagues and Capulets with one of its main inspirations, and to frame the story as a conflict not just between feuding families but also between two religions.
The process of conjoining the two stories also produced something equally valuable: a creative cross-cultural collaboration. Bag & Baggage had from the outset emphasized equity and diversity, but “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 says.
“We wanted to start first season in new home with a bang,” Palmer says. “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.” He quotes one of Romeo and Juliet’s signature lines: “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”