‘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.


Play it, Sam: remembering Shepard

The legendary American playwright and actor, dead at 73, changed the way we thought about theater

“I hate endings. Just detest them,” Sam Shepard once said. “… The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

When word broke on Monday morning that Shepard had died last Thursday, revolving toward some fresh beginning amid the great unknown, it was like a rolling thunderclap breaking over a dry terrain. We don’t expect our geniuses to just end – what sort of resolution is that? – and in a way they don’t. They live on as they play inside our souls and minds, and Shepard surely will do that. He was 73 years old and had had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sam Shepard in the movie “Steel Magnolias.” Photo: Rastar Films © 1989

A lot of people will remember Shepard as an iconic movie actor seemingly carved from the American hills and soil, and his work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the astronaut movie The Right Stuff, among other films, is memorable He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific movie Paris, Texas. But for me, and many others, his true genius was as a playwright.

A whole new generation of writers dominates the American stage now, many of them women and writers of color, reflecting the excitement and challenges and vivid possibilities of a rapidly changing culture. But  Shepard remains a genuine radical who changed the way we thought about theater. Beginning as a wild and free-form outside voice, he matured into a central chronicler of the culture, reinhabiting the mainstream of the American theater in the tradition established by Eugene O’Neill but doing it in his own voice and on his own terms, without losing his outsider edge.


Improvisation Summit of Portland review: spontaneous community

Creative Music Guild's annual two-day celebration of improvisation embraced varied forms of music and dance


Once a year the Creative Music Guild puts on the Improvisation Summit of Portland, featuring local experimental and jazz musicians of all stripes interspersed with other regional and national artists. The roster includes some of the best dancers, instrumentalists, electro-acoustic, and electronic musicians that the region has to offer, performing over the course of two days at the Kenton neighborhood arts space, Disjecta. The volunteer-run festival’s vibe of nerdy musician meets block party is Portland at its fundamental best, a venue for musicians to produce the weird, the deep, and the outrageous amongst other like-minded individuals. And it expresses a deep sense of community that seems lacking in other parts of Portland’s music scene.

Austin & Kleine’s ‘DUETS.’ Photo: Jonathan Sielaff.

Drum Dances

One of the integral parts of the ISP is improvised dance. This year’s festival, which took place June 30-July 1, included five dance performances ranging from entirely improvised to some that were decidedly more choreographed. Dancers Andrea Kleine and Linda Austin’s performance of DUETS with Mike Gamble and Fabian Rucker on synthesizer juxtaposed precise movement with chaotic sounds of two microbrute synths. Percussionists Lisa Schonberg and Heather Treadway improvised a provoking and complex rhythmic framework for dancer Danielle Ross to improvise movement. Similarly, Carla Mann’s improvised dance interwove with crackling energy of Brandon Conway’s freely improvised performance on electric guitar.

Two dance performances that stood out at the ISP both occurred on the festival’s last night. First was New York based dancer and choreographer Andrea Kleine’s SHIPS, a reimagined selection from her larger work Screening Room, or, The Return of Andrea Kleine, based on images from a film by Yvonne Rainer, with New York drummer Bobby Previte compositions as a musical backdrop.

Kleine’s ‘SHIPS’ at ISOP. Photo: Erica Thomas.

The performance began with Previte, Grant Pierce, and Andres Moreno on percussion and Fabian Rucker on baritone saxophone, slowly building a low rumble of drum and saxophone into what would become a swaying cacophony. Amid this, the dancers rose gracefully from their seats in the audience, moving slowly to the center of the room, performing movements that were independent of each other but nonetheless similar in their tranquility.


DanceWatch Weekly: Moving at JAW

This week the dance action is at a theater festival

It’s another warm and sunny weekend here in Portland, which makes going out to see performances really easy compared to the our rainy wintery months—or maybe not if you aren’t a heat person. Personally, I wish summer would last another six months, but I digress. Let’s talk dance.

On Sunday you can catch contemporary Portland dance artists Sara Parker and Rachel Slater activating the Armory lobby in the Pearl with their new site-specific dance work Watchers of the Wild Sky as part of Portland Center Stage’s JAW playwright festival.

Sara Parker and Rachel Slater in “Watchers of the Wild Sky.” Photo courtesy of Rachel Slater and Sara Parker.

The collaborative work is inspired by the energy and the physical materials in the space, and explores themes of softness, subtlety, hysteria, shadowing, and strength, according to the email exchange I had with Parker.

JAW gives time, space, and resources to playwrights with new scripts (a great idea for dance as well: Anyone?), and is interested in creating intersectionality with other arts communities and growing the footprint of the festival by interspersing works of other performance genres within the festival. And it’s enjoyable for the audience, too.

Dance artist Michael “Mantis” Galen. Photo courtesy of JAW.

In addition to Parker and Slater, the festival will include In the Groove, a street dance battle with Michael “Mantis” Galen and an all-star crew, plus a circus performance by artists Amica Hunter and David Cantor from A Little Bit Off. Check the JAW website for the complete performance schedule and performers.

That’s it for dance this weekend in Portland. Short and sweet. Enjoy!

Performances this week

JAW-A Playwright Festival
Featuring dance works by Sara Parker, Rachel Slater, Michael “Mantis” Galen, Amica Hunter, David Cantor and more!
July 28-30
Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave.

Upcoming Performances

August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 3-20, Gypsy, Broadway Rose Theatre Company
August 9, Suspended Moment, Meshi Chavez, Yukiyo Kawano, Allison Cobb, Lisa DeGrace, and Stephen Miller
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
August 13, India Festival 2017, India Cultural Association of Portland
August 19, Laya-Bhavam: An amalgamation and importance of Rhythm in Dance, presented by Sarada Kala Nilayam
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
August 24-October 8, Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities, Cirque Du Soleil
August 25-September 3, Where To Wear What Hat, WolfBird Dance
September 7-17, TBA, Portland Institute For Contemporary Art

Can Modernism be ‘new’ anymore?

A show of abstract work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery leads back to the history of Modernism

This sports anecdote is from the introduction to A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe, the late American art historian who served as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001.

“Somewhere back in a rainy summer in the 1970s, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to a place in the north of England that it fascinated me for years; it’s a playing field that’s part of the Rugby School, and on the wall next to the field is fixed the marker I came to see. It reads: “This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. A. D. 1823.”… I was among [those who played rugby in the late 1960s] and as I moved back toward the bare essentials of the sport, I found my curiosity enduringly piqued by the tale of its origin. What possessed Webb Ellis, in the heat of a soccer game, to pick up the ball? And stranger still, why didn’t they just throw him out of the game?”

In 1823 a guy changes the game from what we call soccer, to the game of rugby. In the late 19th century another game changed, and Varnedoe’s question applies. When Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire with daubs of paint, or certainly when Pablo Picasso began showing analytical cubist paintings—why weren’t they thrown out of the art game? Why did the game change to accommodate them?

So “modern” art reflected an abrupt change from the way art was played in the past, and depending on the critic/historian it originated with Édouard Manet and the “frankness with which [his paintings] declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted,” according to critic Clement Greenberg, or maybe with Van Gogh and Gauguin, according to Arthur Danto—at least sometime before 1900.

Chris Gander,”Plug:Matrix,” 2017,oil on wood construction, 21 x 21 x18″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The idea of modern art also reflected the critical/historical concept of “progress” in art. The genealogy runs something like this: Renaissance begat Mannerism, which begat Baroque, which begat Neo-Classicism, which begat Romanticism, and so on to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism—and then, according to Arthur Danto, in the early 1960s, with Pop Art, and for Danto with the example of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, 1964, which looked just like the mundane Brillo box in the grocery store, the historical idea of “progress” stopped. No longer is there an avant-garde. There is no “next step” in art evolution. As Danto said, “As far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was you had to turn from sense experiences to thought.” It no longer had to look like art to be art.

Modernism in this reading was the last gasp of art “progress.” For a critic like Greenberg (by the way “modern art” is a critical/historical term—I’ve never heard of an artist saying, “I’m a modern artist”) modern painting (painting was the main vehicle for the progress in modernism) tended to strip away things that were not fundamental to painting. The best modern painting, according to Greenberg, would demonstrate recognition of the flatness of the canvas and emphasize color— attributes special to painting. Likewise, Greenberg would find sculpture that was painted with colors irritating, since color was an attribute of painting, not something like scale or form that was essential to sculpture. By the end of the 1960s these ideas were worn out, and nobody cares much about that puritan view now.

Joanna Pousette-Dart,
“Cañones #3,” 2007-08,
acrylic on canvas on shaped panels,
79 x 92″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Now there is an exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery entitled New Modernism that “presents seven artists whose innovative approaches to formalism link them to the modernist art movement of the 19th century.” I don’t buy this premise. All artists have their own formal approaches, and if they do interesting work, their approaches will be personally different (innovative) from those of others. Looking at the exhibition, I don’t see “modernism”—either in the sense of an abrupt break with the past (since there is no “progress” anymore) or in attitudes linked to refinement of the essences of painting or sculpture. The show could easily and more accurately be called Some Current Abstraction, or something like that.

Still, the current abstractions in New Modernism include some interesting artworks for us to consider.


Philip Setzer interview: keeping it fresh

As the Emerson Quartet completes its Chamber Music Northwest residency, a founder talks about new music, a new music/theater project, and what great violinists really think about onstage


I had never been to a chamber music concert until one time in the early 1980s a friend persuaded me to go the the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC to hear, in the words of the Washington Post’s music critic at the time, “The young and splendid Emerson String Quartet.” Surrounded by huge Old Master paintings, my friend Anne and I sat spellbound while these four musicians wove their Schubert and Mendelssohn tapestries. I had enjoyed the grandeur of symphonic music as a lucky student recipient of free tickets, and attended the Washington Opera regularly with my brother. But I had never before experienced the subtle intimacy of chamber music, and I was hooked.

The Emerson Quartet are Chamber Music Northwest’s Artists in Residence this season. Photo: Tom Emerson.

After 40 years of performing together, the Emersons are, well, older (as are we all), but undoubtedly even more splendid. I’ve been fortunate to interview every member of the Quartet, the most recent being the modest, virtuoso violinist Philip Setzer. One of the wonderful things about chamber musicians is that they are all virtuosi, and yet each is an integral part of the family comprising the ensemble.

With the Quartet wrapping up its two-year run as Artists-in-Residence at Portland‘s Chamber Music Northwest, it‘s time to complete my series of Emerson interviews. Just before he left Portland, we talked about old music (especially Shostakovich), new music, violinists who compose, communicating with audiences (and vice versa), Setzer’s role in the Emersons’ recent explorations of combinations of music and theater, and much more.


Chamber Music Northwest review: variable variations

Festival concerts feature a serious American sextet, romantic Russian music, and some sillier selections


After July 2’s gypsy light-heartedness amid an onstage world of tuxedos and concert gowns, Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Summer Festival went one better on July 4 in Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall, into the realm of outright, unashamed silliness: Bohuslav Martinu’s  Suite from La revue de cuisine, with its witty evocation of dancers impersonating kitchen utensils, and William Walton’s Façade, with Edith Sitwell’s whimsical nonsense verse.

R-L: David Shifrin, Julie Feves, Jeffrey Work, Gloria Chien, Dmitri Atapine and Arnaud Sussmann played Martinu and Bolcom at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

A third piece, a world premiere by William Bolcom (b. 1938), who was present with his wife, the singer and native Portlander Joan Morris, that found itself between Martinu’s and Walton’s shenanigans, had nothing to do with this. In its six movements, for the unusual consort of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano, all playing in the multitonal, eclectic style that has ruled contemporary music in recent years, Sextet is SERIOUS. As the composer says, referring to a piece he had written previously, “When the CMNW commission came this last year I’d thought of writing a second Summer Divertimento but could not summon up the carefree tone of the 1973 piece. Things are more fraught now.”

Similarly, in his remarks before the piece began, Bolcom alluded to the present day as anything but carefree. Whether this was a reference to the current president and his influence is open to question, although some in the audience nodded knowingly. But clearly Bolcom meant Sextet to be in some way a “statement,” or at least a statement of his mood in these “fraught” days.