Cassie Greer

‘Much Ado’: Where’s the story?

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Shakespeare's great comedy is glorious to look at. But its big concept gets in the way of the storytelling.

The “nothing” in Much Ado About Nothing has multiple meanings. In Shakespeare’s time, as in our own, it could be used to refer to something inconsequential, not worth “noting.” This play asks us: What do we notice in our lives? How does this affect our ability to love and be loved? 

Bag&Baggage’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing presents a lot to take note of: gender-fluid casting, glitzy and glamorous sets, funny props. But in all of its visual splendor, this adaptation seems to overlook what’s most important: the storytelling.

Phillip J. Berns as Bertram and Christian Mitchell as Hero. Photo: Casey Campbell

Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s great comedies. It follows two pairs of lovers. On one hand, we have Claudio and Hero, the young sweethearts set to get married. Claudio’s insecurities make him easy prey for the machinations of Don John, who sets a trap to make Claudio think Hero is “dishonest” (a.k.a. not a virgin). Then we have Benedick and Beatrice (though in this adaptation Beatrice has been converted to a male Bertram), an older pair of guarded cynics. They don’t want to admit they love each other because that’d require vulnerability. This mix of guardedness and longing makes them easy prey for a trap set by their friends to make them do just that: be vulnerable and accept love. The play is full of funny traps and misunderstandings, and in the end, both couples see through the fog to the truth of their requited love.

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At its best, theater makes magic happen onstage. Fairy tales do the same on the page. So I had high hopes for a pair of short-run May Portland theater productions that updated magical children’s tales. Unfortunately, while each provided sporadic moments of stage sorcery, neither could overcome decidedly un-enchanting scripts.

Mermaid Meets Music Man

Portland indie theater company Broken Planetarium specializes in cheerfully low budget enchantment. (“We’re trying to get beyond ‘scrappy,’ impresaria Laura Dunn noted in a quick pre-show fundraising appeal.) Its fabulous Atlantis made rough magic from cheekily low-fi design, a compelling story set on a post-climate catastrophe flooded New York City rooftop, and Dunn’s delightful original folk songs.

Laura Christina Dunn in ‘Sirens of Coos Bay.’ Photo: Sophia Diaz.

BP’s latest show, Sirens of Coos Bay, takes H.C. Andersen’s ever-popular The Little Mermaid to the 1990s southern Oregon coast town, where the curious creature from the deep (“I want stories I have never known,” LM sings at the outset) encounters a local rock band whose frontman must fall in love with her if she’s to survive on dry land. 

Scriptwriter Dunn draws on her immigrant mother’s memories of the setting’s time and place to weave in evocative details about the timber wars, spotted owl, economic decline. Torn between the bickering boys in the land band, on one fin, and on the other, a female a cappella chorus of fellow mermaids who can’t understand why she’d give up undersea immortality, she also confronts her lover’s own demons, depression and addiction induced by his hometown’s sense of isolation and limited horizons.

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DramaWatch: Can’t pay? Must pay.

The issue of salaries vs. contracts in a typically underpaid profession sweeps the theater scene. Plus, openings from Ashland to Hillsboro.

“To all professional theatre companies and their donors and sponsors, Susan and I will no longer donate to organizations paying less than minimum wage.”

On July 6, that simple message was posted to the Facebook page of Leonard Magazine, who, along with his wife, Susan, is surely among the most devoted of Portland-area theater fans. The pair attend multiple shows each week, and donate widely. Over the next few days, 106 comments on the message were posted by some of the Magazines’ many Facebook friends, many of them theater artists. Many comments engendered their own lengthy sub-threads of replies and exchanges.

In some regards, it’s a complicated issue. The Facebook comments raised questions about the distinctions between hourly pay, salaries and stipends; about the differing treatment of actors, designers, and running crews; about distinctions in union contracts and the demands of state labor law; about whether more stringent pay requirements may cause some professional companies to instead operate as community theaters, or at least lead to seasons full of two-handers because larger casts will be unaffordable. A recurring theme in the comments was appreciation for Don Horn’s Triangle Productions, which has made a commitment to following state wage law and has hosted discussions between theater community members and labor-law specialists.

Dale Johannes in Triangle Productions’ recent “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Triangle has been praised for its adherence to employment laws. Photo: Henry Liu

So much to digest. That the Magazines have made such a decision about their support of theaters and made a public declaration of principle is perhaps not as consequential as if the same move had been made by such a major arts donor as, say, Ronni Lacroute. But as an example of passionate theater supporters taking a tough-love stance around an issue that doesn’t usually get major attention, that single sentence on Facebook might create a meaningful ripple in the city’s arts ecosystem. Certainly the Magazines intend it as a spur to discussion and action, among donors and administrators alike.

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‘Death and the Maiden’ review: a history of violence

Bag & Baggage's production of Ariel Dorfman's play about confronting the consequences of repression makes more persuasive political analysis than drama

A man bound and gagged. A woman pointing a gun at him. Confess his crime against her, or else.

You can’t ask for a much tenser set up than that. Death and the Maiden keeps the audience wondering throughout: did he do it, and will she do it? One of those questions will be resolved before the show is over.

But although they drive the plot, those aren’t the main questions raised by Ariel Dorfman’s provocative 1990 play now running at The Vault Theatre in Hillsboro. How do people, and by extension society, heal from past violence? Is confession enough? Or confession plus repentance? How about vengeance? Or should we just leave the past buried and move on?

Mandana Khoshnevisan as Paulina and Anthony Green as Roberto in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Death and the Maiden.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Dorfman’s play purports to dramatize this recurring conundrum by reducing it to three characters: A vengeful victim, blindfolded, tortured and raped years before by minions of a now-deposed military dictatorship. Her maybe-victimizer, whose voice resembles that of the man who, during the depths of the repression, tortured her to the recorded strains of a string quartet.  Her husband, who happens to be involved in the country’s efforts to confront its repressive past.

But even as the plot, and the ethical arguments, unfold, Dorfman’s script, and this production, leave those characters pretty much where they started. While Death and the Maiden poses some still-urgent questions, here it dutifully proceeds more like a combination formula thriller and a detached classroom ethics debate than an emotionally gripping character drama.

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‘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.

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“A lot of theaters do this show looking very French 1950s, with lots of pink and gold,” remarked Bag&Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer at Sunday’s talkback post-Parfumerie.

And why wouldn’t they? The title suggests Frenchness, elegance, and putting on airs (wink), and the various rebrands the play has inspired—You’ve Got Mail, She Loves Me, The Shop around the Corner—are certainly warm and schmaltzy enough to countenance a general pink-and-gold glow.

But B&B’s version, taking a textual cue from Miklos Laszlo’s original play set in 1930s Budapest, plays it a little cooler and deeper, not just with an austere and neutral set, but with characters taking a few beats between quips for silent contemplation. Considering that comparatively few of the script’s lines are devoted to perfume or toiletries, and many more are directed at the complexities of business and personal relationships and a frank assessment of life goals, I submit to future producers yet another fresh title for the same fare, complete with a retail pun: “Taking Stock.”

A humming retail environment holds contains this charming split narrative that's less about perfume than it is about personal lives.

A humming retail environment contains this charming comedy that’s less about perfume than it is about personal lives.

“Wake up! Your life has passed you by!”

“Do you think I’m doing the right thing?…There’s always just a shadow of a doubt.”

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‘Emma’ & ‘Grand Concourse’ reviews: Instigating women

Characters in Bag & Baggage and Artists Repertory Theatre productions pit good intentions against hard reality

The upstart Portland Trail Blazers are leading the greatest team in NBA history at halftime. It’s the crucial game in the second round of the playoffs.  No one expected the young Blazers to even be here. How could I tear myself away to hear repressed Victorians prattle on about who’s gonna marry whom??

Besides, haven’t we more important things to worry about — homelessness, human-caused climate change, the potential for the Greatest Upset in NBA Playoff History?

And yet, Bag&Baggage’s production of Jane Austen’s Emma held promise. Hardly anyone pulls off snappier dialogue than Austen, not even NBA broadcast commentators Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal or Kenny Smith.  So grumbling only slightly, I headed for Hillsboro.

Cassie Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage's 'Emma.' Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Clara Liis-Hillier & Cassie Greer in Bag & Baggage’s ‘Emma.’ Photo: Jess StewartMaize, LensFlare Photography.

Unfortunately, Michael Fry’s 1996 stage adaptation falls victim to the problems that often plague translations of art from their original medium. In trying to remain faithful to Austen’s novel, Fry bogged down the stage adaptation with slow-playing exposition, just like the many NBA teams who failed to successfully adapt to new rules intended to enliven the game. Here I was watching the equivalent of the Memphis Grizzlies onstage while my mind kept drifting to the Moda Center and the Golden State Warriors with their high-flying offense.

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