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Hillsboro's professional theater puts on its outdoor production, taking 'Romeo and Juliet' back to its Islamic roots

COURTESY PHOTO: CASEY CAMPBELL PHOTOGRAPHY - Romeo&Juliet (Layla&Majnun) features Arianne Jacques as Juliet (Layla) and Nicholas Granato as Romeo (Majnun). The play debuts in Hillsboro July 20.It's a rather interesting and fraught time for Shakespearean performances across the country. After The Public Theater's politically charged production of "Julius Caesar" just last month in New York, many American theatre groups have become targets of threats and harsh criticism.

The Public Theatre show, updated to a more modern version in which the titular character looked nearly identical to Donald Trump, ended with Caesar's stabbing by his fellow senators.

Despite the chaos — with sponsors pulling out and distancing themselves from productions and clashes between Trump supporters and arts institutions — Bag&Baggage Productions, Hillsboro's professional resident theatre company, remains committed more than ever to challenging and provocative art.

Founding artistic director Scott Palmer and compay are taking Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" back to its Islamic roots in a production that's being embraced by the community. The world premiere adaptation features text from 12th century Sunni Muslim poet Nizami Ginjavi's epic "Layla and Majnun," a work that is said to have an indirect influence on Shakespeare's tragedy.

"The story of Layla and Majnun has been called the single most important poetic work in the literary history of the Middle East," said Palmer, who adapted the work. "Tracking the journey of Layla and Majnun from ancient Iran to Strattford-Upon-Avon is tricky, but the parallels are too numerous to ignore.

"In many ways it is possible to argue that Romeo and Juliet were born not in Verona but rather in the deserts of Arabia in the 6th Century."

In Nizami's 4,000-verse poem, two young lovers reject the edicts of their parents, embrace their forbidden love and pay the ultimate price. Along the way, there are banishments, arranged marriages, bad advice from spiritual figures and 'love as madness' metaphors aplenty. As a homage to the Nizami work, and to drive a more authentic experience, the B&B production relocates the action of Shakespeare's play to 12th Century Persia, immediately prior to the European Crusades.

The cast and crew of the mash-up production, called "Romeo&Juliet (Layla&Majnun)," features three artists of Persian descent, including Melory Mirashrafi, a 20-year-old first-generation Iranian-American as the assistant director; Avesta Mirashrafi, her 17-year-old brother, a junior at Hillsboro High School; and Mandana Khoshnevisan, a second generation Iranian-American.

"One of the most important things about this production is to shine a light on what Islam really is, not what it is labelled as by the mass media. A first page Google search will show things related to terror, oil and bombing," said Melory. "Scott approached me about this production, and I said 'of course,' it's a chance to let people see something new and beautiful."

"I've run into firsthand misconceptions about our culture," said Avesta. "I go back to Iran every year, and people get really worried because of a depiction they have in their heads."

Khoshnevisan agrees. "It's no longer the same play that people have seen time and time again, there's more nuance, and right from the get-go, audience members will realize that this is something that is fresh and new, and that they have to pay attention."

The cast and crew believe that so much of the classic Shakespearean tragedy owes much to a culture that has some of the most brilliant minds.

"What we have tried to do is explore the similarities between the two poetic and highlight them for our audiences," said Palmer. "For example, Juliet's 'gallop apace' speech from Shakespeare has numerous corollaries in the Nizami, so we blended those images and that text together.

"It isn't Shakespeare, and it isn't Nizami; it is a blending of the two."

B&B has been reaching out to local mosques and the Muslim community at large, extending an invitation for them to see an innovative show in a largely white space.

"I'm hesitant to see how we navigate the cultural impact," Palmer noted. "We don't want to fetishize, but most people who watch theatre here are white, and we want to make sure we're offering an authentic experience, we will stay true to what I know the culture to be."

Melory's father was so excited about the premise of the show that he composed a piece a music for it. It seems that B&B's production has the whole community intrigued.

The full cast includes Nicholas Granato as Romeo/Majnun, Arianne Jacques as Juliet/Layla, Lawrence Siulagi as The Sayyed, Signe Larsen as Tybalt, Eric St. Cyr as Ibn Salam, Colin Wood as Nawfal, Gary Ploski as The Storyteller, Mandana Khoshnevisan as Lady Capulet, Cassie Greer as Benvolia and Avesta Mirashrafi as Abram.

Performances will take place outdoors at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza in downtown Hillsboro on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. from July 20 to Aug. 5. Patrons may visit www.bagnbaggage.org for more information and to purchase tickets, which are $20. The Bag&Baggage box office can be reached at 503-345-9590.

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