‘Ulysses In Nighttown’ At Muhlenberg, April 27-30‏

Allentown, PA — “Ulysses,” James Joyce’s 1922 epic widely regarded as one of the most important works of modernist literature, takes the stage at Muhlenberg College, in an adaptation that director James Peck describes as “weird, sexy, and a little dangerous.” “Ulysses in Nighttown” plays April 27-30 to conclude the Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance Department’s mainstage season.

Peck says the production employs vivid imagery, unconventional storytelling techniques, and Joyce’s own spectacularly vivid language to capture “a journey into the unconscious.” The play excerpts one lengthy episode of the novel (known to Joyce aficionados as the Circe episode), taking place mostly in the red-light district of Dublin, Ireland.

“The play gives shape to the desires of the three characters at the heart of ‘Ulysses,’” says Peck, a professor of theater at Muhlenberg. “It is surreal, stream-of-consciousness — we go inside the minds of the characters, experience their hallucinations and their faltering sanity. The play is coherent, but it’s coherent in the way that dreams are coherent.”

Aching for fellowship, middle-aged ad salesman Leopold Bloom pursues the alienated young novelist Stephen Dedalus on a late-night bender through Dublin’s red light district. There they find themselves confronting their feverish fears and passions, haunted by their transgressions and fetishes. Full of portent and hallucination, Joyce’s sprawling text takes a dark turn in this episode, which playwright Marjorie Barkentin has adapted as a stand-alone narrative, with context derived from the rest of the novel.

At a fundamental level, Peck says, “Ulysses in Nighttown” is the story of a friendship between two men dealing with loss — Stephen with the loss of his mother, and Bloom with the death of his child and the disintegration of his marriage to Molly, who he knows has taken to pursuing affairs with other men. But the play, like the novel, hardly lends itself to simple synopsis.

The production will feature an original musical score by percussionist Douglas Ovens, a professor and former department chair of music at Muhlenberg, who has previously provided music for “Orlando,” “The Other Shore,” “The Possibilities,” and other plays at Muhlenberg. Ovens will play the score himself in performance.

Peck says he was moved to direct the play by its storytelling challenges and by Joyce’s linguistic virtuosity — but also for more personal reasons.

“I hadn’t done anything strange for a while, and I wanted to do something strange,” he says. “I also think this is some of the most evocative English language that has ever been written. I wanted to delve into that language in the way that creating a production for the stage forces you to do.”

He continues: “I think when I was in my 20s, when I first read ‘Ulysses,’ I identified with the character of Stephen. Now in my 50s, I feel like I identify more with Bloom. When you’re younger, you feel like the world of possibilities is wide open. Then as you get older you find that as many doors are closed to you as are open. I think the play delves very deeply into that maturation, that sense of gain and simultaneous loss that comes with maturity.”

“Ulysses in Nighttown” plays April 27-30. Showtimes are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Regular admission tickets are $15. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8. The production is recommended for mature audiences.

Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Empire Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

All-Female Cast Brings Feminist Sensibility To Molière’s Comedy ‘The Learned Ladies’

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allentown, PA — In directing Molière’s “The Learned Ladies,” opening Feb. 20 at Muhlenberg College, James Peck had two choices.

He could either let Molière’s 17th century sensibilities take the reins, and produce a play about the absurdity of its female characters’ efforts to educate themselves. Or he could dig a bit deeper, and find the ways in which Molière’s comedy reveals a nobility and bravery in those efforts.

“I can see two versions of this play being produced,” Peck says. “It could certainly be done as a misogynist satire, and some directors really want to steer clear of the play because of that. But I think it more fundamentally — and the version we’re trying to do, certainly — is a play about the ridiculous lengths that men have sometimes gone to in order to keep women from educating themselves.”

In other words, it’s the sexism that’s absurd, rather than the ladies themselves — at least most of the time. In support of this perspective, Peck has cast women in all of the roles, male and female — including his faculty colleague Francine Roussel in the role of Belize.

“I think having an all-female company of women who are themselves ‘learned ladies’ underscores the point,” Peck says. “And to be fair to Molière, often his female characters are the savviest people on the stage. As soon as you start thinking that the women are ridiculous, they do or say something that’s really kind and beautiful and insightful.

“The play is also blindingly funny,” he says. “I mean, these intellectual ideas are important to me, but the humor is as well.”

“The Learned Ladies” runs Feb. 20-23 in the college’s Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre. Broadway lighting designer Rick Fisher, winner of the 2009 Tony Award for his work on “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” is designing the lights for the show as part of a semester-long residency.

For Peck, the project also represented an opportunity to work with Roussel, who returns to the Muhlenberg mainstage for the first time since “Cabaret” in 2005. A native of France, Roussel was among the founders of the Actors Studio in Paris. She has written and performed her own shows, and continues her acting career in France and America. Her numerous film and television credits include “Sex and the City,” “Saturday Night Live,” and Sydney Pollack’s feature film “The Interpreter.” Roussel directs frequently for the Muhlenberg mainstage and teaches acting at Muhlenberg.

“Working with Francine has been an incredible pleasure,” Peck says. “She’s a truly skilled actress. She has really penetrating insight into what’s happening in the scene, as well as tremendous comic timing.”

In his 1672 satire of culture pretentiousness, Molière asks whether a woman can be both a devoted wife and a devoted scholar. Henriette and Clitandre wish to marry. Henriette’s father and uncle are in favor of the match, but the women of her family are obsessed with the allure of salon culture, and wish for her to marry Trissotin, a pompous but mediocre poet. Henriette must decide whether she should live life as a highly educated but unhappy woman, or whether she can continue her education without sacrificing love.

The production features a 1978 translation by acclaimed poet Richard Wilbur, in which “words dance delectably,” according to The New York Times.

The set for the play, designed by Muhlenberg design professor Curtis Dretsch, is a giant armillary sphere — a model of celestial objects consisting of a series of concentric rings that spin around one another. The design concept reflects the characters’ desire literally to map the heavens, and more broadly, to come to a greater understanding of the universe around them.

“The sphere provides unusual playing spaces for the action of the show,” Peck says. “It also serves as the perfect image for the women’s learned enterprises.”

“The Learned Ladies” will be performed Feb. 20-23: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. Performances are in the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre, in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre.

Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department offers one of the top-rated college performance programs in the country, according to the Princeton Review rankings. Muhlenebrg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. It has been named annually among the Fiske Guide to Colleges’ top 20 small college programs in the United States.

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Hilarity Heats Up The Harmony In MSMT’s ‘HMS Pinafore’

Pop-Art inspiration highlights the humor In Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s first big hit, running July 11-29

Allentown, Pa (June 30, 2012) – When Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore” opens July 11 at Muhlenberg College, aficionados will see the 19th century operetta they know and love, says director James Peck. But they will also see the bright colors and bold lines of the Pop Art era of Warhol and Rauschenberg, from which the production draws inspiration.

“The show will appeal to traditionalists and satisfy them. It’s a faithful production,” Peck says. “But it will also definitely win new fans. It’s a 134-year-old Victorian show filled with comedic and melodious moments, and we’re color-washing it—making it Technicolor.”

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre, now in its 32nd season, presents “HMS Pinafore” July 11-29, in the Baker Theatre. Peck, chair of the Theatre & Dance Department, will direct the show; Ed Bara and Muhlenberg alumna AlexJo Natale will provide musical direction and choreography, respectively.

“What makes ‘Pinafore’ so unique and special is the pure humor rubbing up against some of the most beautiful music,” Peck says. “It’s simultaneously absurd and beautifully serious.”

Librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan’s first big hit, “HMS Pinafore” is full of hijinks and silliness, as well as the pair’s trademark wit, satire, and melodic songs. Ralph Rackstraw, a sailor aboard the HMS Pinafore and “the smartest lad in the fleet,” is in love with the ship captain’s daughter, Josephine — but her father has a more sophisticated suitor in mind: The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B, First Lord of the Admiralty.

Will true love prevail? Peck says they audience will just have to attend to find out. “Though let’s be honest,” he says. “They can probably guess.”

“Pinafore” was first produced in 1878 at the Opera Comique inLondon, where it ran for 571 performances —the second-longest running operetta up to that time. Some of the show’s best-known songs include “I’m Called Little Buttercup” and “A British Tar.”

“In fact,” Peck says, “the start of American musical theatre owes a lot to this show. It became an international sensation — and when it crossed over to theUnited States, it helped set the stage for the form of the American musical.”

Peck has directed the show before, many years ago. “Actually it was the third play I ever directed,” he says. “So I was so young; I was going by instinct. Now I have a tool bag, tricks of the trade, 25 more years of experience, and of course a great cast.”

Peck brings a Pop Art sensibility to this classic musical theatre masterpiece by playing with the typical production design to create something novel but still rooted in history.

“Imagine what Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns might have done with ‘Pinafore,’ and that’s where we’re headed,” Peck says. “The show takes place on a warship painted to look like the Union Jack in bright reds and aqua blues. It feels like a toy boat.”

MSMT’s second production of the season reaches new technicolor heights with the help of faculty members and Muhlenberg alumni. Peck and Barra are joined by faculty member and professional actor Troy Dwyer as the dialect designer for the show. Also joining the production are Muhlenberg alumni Lauren Curnow ’96 as Little Buttercup and Matthew Allar ’00 as the scenic designer.

Allar and costume designer Kevin Thacker look to bring a sense of flourish to the show — reflective of the flourish of the music and lyrics — by brightening the costumes and set.

“We are embracing the late 19th century Victoriana setting, but in a pop contemporary way,” Allar says. “I am working to update the Victorian aesthetic typically seen in ‘HMS Pinafore’ with heightened shape and color to reflect the heightened music.”

Similarly, Dwyer, is crafting dialects not commonly used for “Pinafore” — but which he says are more truthful to the setting of the show. The characters are of British descent, but from the coast, resulting in more of a Hampshire and Portsmith accent which Dwyer says sounds “more pirate-like” than the English Cockney accent usually used

“This show takes a bold, colorful, vivid approach to the world of ‘Pinafore,'” Dwyer says, “but with no sacrifice of human reality, thanks to Jim. There are complete, whole characters — performing absurd humor.”

The accents Dwyer is designing signify more than a truthful locale, they also signify status and class within the world of the play. The more “pirate-like” the accent gets, the lower the class of the character speaking.  All of this intense focus on dialect specificity works to solidify Peck’s creation of absurdity still rooted in reality. Although Peck draws from a pop contemporary style, he still hopes to get at some important themes of class and true love. The show is anchored (pun intended) by these realistic themes.

“The theme of war between classes in this opera is as relevant today as it was when the show was written,” says actress Lauren Curnow, who plays Little Buttercup. “What’s great with this piece is that Gilbert and Sullivan composed text and music to complement each character’s absurd, but very serious, take on where the class lines should be drawn.”

“HMS Pinafore” plays July 11-29, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., in the Dorothy H. Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance.

For the first four performances, July 11-14, tickets are $32 regular admission; seniors are $28; students and children are $18. For shows beginning July 15, tickets are $38 regular admission; seniors, $35; students and children, $20.

Sundays are Family Matinee day; tickets for children ages 5-18 are just $10 when purchased with a full-price or senior ticket. (Limit two discounted tickets per full-price ticket.) Group discounts are available for groups of 15 or more.

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre performance information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/SMT.

History And Gender Are Up For Grabs In Muhlenberg’s Joyful ‘Orlando’

Virginia Woolf‘s groundbreaking tale takes the stage April 28 to explore what we mean when we talk about identity, gender, poetry, and love

Allentown, Pa. (April 12, 2011) — “Orlando,” the final play in Muhlenberg College’s Mainstage Theatre & Dance season, traverses three centuries of European history—doing so through the introspective lens of a would-be poet who changes gender and lives for hundreds of years. Based on the influential novel by Virginia Woolf, the play tackles difficult issues of gender and of how we create art, says James Peck, who directs the production.

“But it will also be a rollicking good time,” he says.

“It’s incredibly funny and beautiful,” says Peck, chair of Muhlenberg’s Theatre & Dance Department and professor of theater. “It’s very emotional, a great love story.”

Adapted for the stage by Sarah Ruhl from Woolf’s 1928 “Orlando: A Biography,” “Orlando” tells the story of an ageless, privileged man who begins life in 16th century England. He lives through the 17th century, falls asleep, and wakes up in the 18th century as a woman.

“She is still Orlando in the mind, just in a new body,” says Anna Gothard, a senior at Muhlenberg who plays the title character.

“Orlando” runs April 28 through May 1, in Muhlenberg’s Baker Theatre. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.

As a young man, Orlando desperately wants to become a poet. However, he is called to serve in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. After a series of lovers, including an intriguing Russian princess, Sasha (played by Rachel Berger), Orlando escapes to Constantinople. There, in the midst of political turmoil, Orlando falls into a deep slumber, waking several days later to find that she is now a woman.

“The message is quite serious and political,” Peck says. “It is a very feminist play. When she becomes a woman, she loses the privileges of masculinity, but she gains greater sensitivity to life’s struggles. This leads to her becoming a better writer, worth other people hearing.”

The play encourages audiences to examine which social roles are determined by biology and which have been constructed by society.

“It will hopefully make you leave the theater with a new attitude on gender or art,” Gothard says. “What is gender? What is woman, man, and in-between?”

Woolf’s novel is based loosely on the life of her lover, Vita Sackville-West. The book’s genre is difficult to place, Peck says. Woolf referred to it as a biography, but its fanciful elements—Orlando’s centuries-long lifespan and overnight sex change, for example—keep it on the shelves of fiction.

The novel was adapted into a play in 2003 by Sarah Ruhl, a Tony Award-nominated contemporary playwright, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. Muhlenberg’s production of the play is among the first ever and is a regional premiere.

In addition to the characters of Orlando and Sasha, the play features about 20 other characters, portrayed by a chorus of nine actors. Each chorus member portrays multiple characters, often bending the constraints of gender. The entire cast is on stage for most of the play, which has proved to be an exciting directorial challenge, Peck says.

“They are the most professional chorus I have ever worked with,” Gothard says. “They are just as important as Orlando in discovering things about love, gender and sexuality—both as characters and as actors.”

The cast’s greatest challenge, according to Gothard, has been to carry Orlando and the rest of the characters convincingly through more than 300 years of history. The actors have been working with Marla Burkholder, a Philadelphia-based dialect coach, actor, and teaching artist, who has helped them to make clear choices about how they walk and talk from one era to the next.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on how people moved through the centuries,” Gothard says. “Our inflections have to change as our costumes change.”

The set for the production is designed by Curtis Dretsch, professor of theater design. It includes a teardrop-shaped platform that rotates to show the passage of time, and curtains made from more than four miles of rope.

“There is great with mobility and fluidity in the set,” Peck says. “It will be very beautiful.”

Also helping to show the passage of time is an original musical score, composed by Muhlenberg music professor Doug Ovens.

“Doug’s music carries the play through the centuries,” Peck says. “He has created a procession of musical styles that conjure the sound of each century. He samples, imitates, rewrites, and combines motifs from Monteverdi to Beethoven to Ellington. But in the end the music is all Ovens—full of wit, intelligence and feeling.”

Orlando will be the final role of Gothard’s college acting career—the Bangor native graduates this May. It has also been her most difficult role, she says, and her most satisfying.

“It’s the biggest part I’ve ever had,” she says. “It has the most to think about, but it’s the coolest challenge in the whole world. Every day, after four hours of rehearsal, I feel so rewarded.”

Peck says Gothard has more than risen to the occasion. “It’s a tour de force role for her,” he says.

A film version of “Orlando” was produced in 1992, directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane. Unlike the film, which focused on the darker aspects of the tale, Peck says the play adaptation is cheerful and bright.

“It has love and sex and joy and life,” he says. “It’s the perfect play for spring.”

“Orlando” performances are Thursday through Saturday, April 28-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 1, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. The production is recommended for mature audiences. Performances are in the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre, in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

“Orlando” performance information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre.