‘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.

Additions and Alterations

Fans of Shakespeare’s original will find most of their favorite lines and scenes here: the teenaged “star-crossed lovers” from fatally feuding families, an attempted and unwelcome arranged marriage, street fights, balcony scene, happy dagger, tragic ending. So too are the passions, positive and otherwise, that always animated R&J.

But some familiar elements are missing: no Nurse nor Friar Lawrence nor, most significant, the gimmicky yet heart-rending mixup at the end in which Romeo doesn’t realize that Juliet has faked her death in order to be with him, and kills himself rather than live the life he imagines without her. Turns out, surprisingly, the tragedy doesn’t really need it.

Some trimmings even tighten Shakespeare’s tale in ways that pace the story better for 21st century audiences. But this fascinating outdoor production should be appreciated for what it is, not what it isn’t. Those absences are more than recompensed by the additions, especially sumptuous stretches of Nizami’s poetry that makes even scenic description shimmer like a desert mirage.

Our whole land bids you welcome, lady.
In the garden, the blossoms smile.
The morning earth has hoisted a twin-colored banner,
Red tulips and yellow roses, to welcome Friends from afar.
See, the rosebud’s thorny lances are dulled.
The water lily, pausing, has rested her shield
On the mirror of the pond. The hyacinth has opened wide her cups, The box tree combs its hair, and the narcissus Glowing fiercely, has woken from her bad dream.

Many poetic descriptions are intoned by another addition: a Storyteller, confidently played by Gary Ploski, who narrates important contextual information at several junctures, including an introductory monologue that immediately brings us into the play’s world — not Renaissance Verona, but the medieval Middle East, where the newly arrived Roman noble Capulet clan and its Crusader garrison brings both danger and potentially lucrative trading opportunities to the dusty Persian streets of Banu Amir.

L to R: Nicholas Granato, Cassie Greer, Colin Wood, Lawrence Siulagi, Eric St. Cyr, Mandy Khoshnevisan, Signe Larsen, Avesta Mirashrafi in Bag&Baggage Productions’ ‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

On the other side, Romeo’s father is the local Bedouin ruler, the Sayyid, a wise and widely respected descendent of Muhammad. “I have many followers and great riches,” he tells Lady Capulet, the emissary of the Roman empire. “I can be a valuable friend or a formidable enemy. Let us be friends. Let us be more.”

The story thus entails bigger stakes than an inter-family feud. This Romeo and Juliet also implicates Christians and Muslims, West and East, possibly even war and peace. The added political and religious context, an original addition to the tale(s) that feels organic, substantially deepens and broadens the original tragic love story. There’s a lot more at stake than two teenagers and their clans.

The storyteller addition reveals another fusion embodied in this Romeo/Layla. It’s not just a merging of two tales from two cultures, but also of two different kinds of literature: stage drama and epic poetry. And while Palmer’s adaptation, and no doubt the two tales’ common origin, makes the lyrical fusion much smoother than you might expect, this sometimes turns out to be a double-edged scimitar.

While the latter’s luscious language usually enhances the former, some sequences linger too long on poetic description or exposition, as in Act V, when Majnun/Romeo is exiled to the desert, slowing the urgent narrative drive that made the production’s taut first half so compelling. Even so, Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun) is easily one of the season’s most ambitious and enchanting productions, a play that can appeal to a wide variety of audiences, from teenagers — especially teenagers — on up, and across ethnicities.

New Blood

Along with the inclusion of new cultural and story elements, this production benefits from an infusion of several actors new to the company, who along with some of the old ones, help make Romeo/Layla one of Bag and Baggage’s best-performed productions.

As the Sayyid (Romeo’s father), Lawrence Siulagi brings a complex, convincing mix of paternal compassion, political savvy, and believable strength. In a poignant scene with Romeo and then Lady Capulet that opens the second half, he brilliantly balances the role of sorrowful, worried and reproving parent with being a humble, wily and sensitive leader and negotiator.

In keeping with Bag & Baggage’s long-standing commitment to women in theater, two major roles are played by female company members. Forget that pretender playing Wonder Woman on screens everywhere: Signe Larsen turns Tybalt into a fire-eyed Crusader true believer — a medieval Atomic Blonde you really don’t want to get, uh, crosswise with. Cassie Greer brings considerable agitated energy to Benvolia, but as with Mandana Khoshnevisan’s Lady Capulet, her unvarying vocal performance doesn’t match her assertive physical acting. Colin Wood’s tempestuous Mercutio/Narwal practically steals the first half with his fabulously Falstaffian bluster, so charming you simultaneously understand and forgive his hot headedness.

Greer, Larsen, and Wood in ‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

In the title roles, Nicholas Granato and Arianne Jacques appealingly capture the eager awkwardness of adolescent first crush, Granato even chinning himself to rise a little closer to Layla/Juliet on her balcony. Yet thanks both to his impassioned acting and some ennobling Nizamian poetry, he still comes off as an admirable friend, fighter, and family member.

Jacques, too, sparkles with a spunky, playful passion that suits this Juliet far more than the wan passivity she’s often played with. You easily believe they’re so smitten by first love and discovery that they just can’t bear to part.

Their chemistry really combusts under Palmer’s crisp, astute direction, which brings out the story’s endearing humor more than any production I’ve seen. The rest of the production shines, too, including including snatches of song (no, not that one) and other Middle Eastern music, Jim Ricks-White’s effective red and blue lighting, Melissa Heller’s historical costumes, and the spare but evocative set: a capacious tent-like canopy, its interiors partly concealed from the audience, topped by the Civic Center’s walkway (which makes an excellent balcony), that serves multiple purposes.

These and other Middle Eastern touches amount to far more than mere superficial exoticism, or yet another director’s fanciful take on a classic. Nothing seems forced. Maybe because this adaptation brings us closer to Shakespeare’s original source material, this production somehow seems, paradoxically, truer to itself. The action feels true to the characters and their universal, culture-spanning stories: adolescence’s heightened passions, whether rage or romance; the way impersonal institutions override individual human needs; the inevitable tragedy that results from our tendency toward tribalism, especially apropos in a political climate where political opportunists seek to divide us. (The opening weekend was sponsored by Defensa De La Dignidad, a new non-profit organization helping people in Oregon’s Washington County facing unjust deportation find legal representation.)

By drawing on the evergreen story’s ancient roots, and by adroitly embracing so many elements from various cultures and literatures and even outside actors, Bag & Baggage has managed to bring a new freshness to an old tale, whatever name you give it.

Romeo and Juliet (Layla and Majnun) continues through August 5 at Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E Main Street, Hillsboro. Tickets are available online at www.bagnbaggage.org or 503 345 9590

Want to read more about Oregon theater? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Comments are closed.