TuHS presents original adaptation of The Adventures of Hir and Ranjha

The young actors at Tualatin High School have never been satisfied to just throw together a production of “Our Town” and call it a season. Their teacher and director Stephen Jackson Clark is known for putting challenging material in his students’ hands — even if he has to commission it himself.

This year’s spring production is a collaboration between Clark and local playwright Debbie Lamedman. Together, they’re bringing to the stage an adaptation of a classic Punjabi poem that’s often compared to “Romeo and Juliet.”

Clark had already invited Lamedman to teach a couple playwriting workshops at the school. But he was impressed, too, by her body of published work, largely written for teenagers.

“I felt like she had an ear for high school-speak,” Clark said. “And that she knew her way around the dynamics of a script.”

Trained as an actor, Lamedman said she stumbled into writing for the stage, and for a younger niche, during a break from performing.

“I started to teach teenagers,” she explained. “I realized that there was no appropriate material for these teens to sink their teeth into. I started writing monologues for my students. I had so many I submitted them to a publisher. They decided they wanted me to write a book of 10-minute scenes for teens. And suddenly I realized I was a writer.”

“I liked the shift,” she considered. “I liked being behind the scenes. I stayed in theater, which has been my love for as long as I can remember, but I shifted and became a teacher and a director and a writer.”

“The theater community (in Portland) has been wonderful to me,” she said. “They really opened their arms.”

In addition to her work at Tualatin High School, she teaches playwriting to high school students through Portland Center Stage’s Visions and Voices program, and is a member of Playwrights West, a small group of professional writers who help each other develop and promote works for theater.

Hectic schedule notwithstanding, Lamedman was intrigued by Clark’s proposal to bring the years-spanning love story to the stage.

“Hir and Ranjha” draws easy comparisons to the Shakespeare classic, but Lamedman points out the rich differences: While the two teen lovers had to contend with the feuding Capulet and Montague clans, Hir and Ranjha are at the mercy of a more deeply embedded caste system, with Ranjha belonging to the labor class. And the Punjabi couple enjoys something Romeo and Juliet never did: longevity.

“It just goes on for years and years and years,” Lamedman explained, “and Ranjha sacrifices everything: He leaves his family, he becomes a yogi, he tries to contact the gods to find out (what to do). He changes everything about himself and changes his life and his beliefs in order to be with (Ranjha). He loses her, he finds her again. She’s married to somebody else, and yet he still pursues her.”

After all, “The Adventures of Hir and Ranjha,” sometimes referred to as “Heer Ranjha,” is an epic poem.

“It’s tragedy in its purest form, but it’s also love in its purest form,” Lamedman added.

The devotion between the title characters is mutual, which emphasizes a quality Lamedman often sees missing in more contemporary love stories.

“People have the wrong idea about love these days. The minute it gets uncomfortable, they give up,” Lamedman laughed.

While the theme questions audience perceptions of romance, the length of the production, at two and a half hours, may prove a bit of a challenge, too.

“Theater is getting shorter and shorter,” Lamedman said. “People are wanting 90 minutes, no intermission in and out. At the same time, it’s nice to go for a full evening of theater, especially when there’s so much spectacle on stage.”

And “The Adventures of Hir and Ranjha” isn’t short on spectacle, boasting colorful costumes and elaborate dance routines somewhat reminiscent of Bollywood tradition.

“The older I get, the less I want to wait for something to happen,” Clark said of taking what could be seen as risks in the realm of high school drama. “I’m just in this mode of, ‘I’m going to seize opportunities as they present themselves.’”

Fresh off a successful, stylistically experimental run of “Rashomon” the year before, Clark said he was certain his students were up to the task.

“I felt emboldened by our success with ‘Kabuki fusion.’ I thought if we can do that, we can do Punjabi fusion,” Clark said.

His student teacher, Margaret Gorman, is a professional choreographer with a unique understanding of the music and dance styles of the region.

“This was probably one of the most, if not the most, challenging production I’ve ever worked on,” Clark admitted. “There are 32 distinct scenes.”

The play, completed in January, also has 84 speaking parts.

Ludeman said she was impressed by Clark’s vision.

“He just puts his heart and soul into everything he does,” she said. “It was a monster project, but it was really gratifying.”

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