Muhlenberg College ‘New Visions’ Festival Showcases Directorial Talents, Nov. 30 – Dec. 4

Allentown, PA — Two talented Muhlenberg College senior directing students will present their work in Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance’s “New Visions Directors’ Festival: Falling,” Nov. 30 – Dec. 4.

The evening includes 19th century playwright Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” based on the biblical tale of the beheading of John the Baptist, and 20th century playwright Sam Shepard’s ominous exploration of Cold War anxiety, “Icarus’s Mother.”

“Despite the fact that ‘Salome’ is classical in style and ‘Icarus’ uses American vernacular, the plays complement each other,” says “Icarus’s Mother” director Karina Fox. “They are both about identity and self-acceptance in a judgmental universe.”

Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” directed by Simon Evans, tells the biblical story of Salome, Princess of Judea, stepdaughter of Herod, the lecherous ruler. Salome’s affections lie with the prophet Iokanaan (John the Baptist), who rejects her sexual advances. To Herod’s delight, Salome finally agrees to dance the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. When Herod offers her anything she wants in return, Salome makes a startling and gruesome demand.

In a departure from theatrical tradition, all of the characters in this production of “Salome” are performed by female actors.  

“We are creating a sort of parallel universe where men do not exist and female queerness and sexuality can be celebrated,” Evans says. “I want to explore how women can be empowered through their bodies and through their actions.”

Evans says he hopes to create a world the late playwright would have been proud to experience.

“I think the queering of the tale is really true to Wilde’s vision,” he says. “I’m trying to pay tribute to a really brilliant man who had some really awful stuff happen to him.” Oscar Wilde died destitute and humiliated after his imprisonment for homosexuality.

Evans says he hopes to create “beautiful stage pictures while really allowing the bodies onstage to tell the story.” He sees this production as a collaborative effort among himself, the production team, and the show’s 13 actresses.

“I’m really interested in working with my collaborators and finding what feels best for everybody,” he says. “I’m definitely open to new things, and allowing for work to go in directions I never expected.”

Collaboration is a value Evans shares with “Icarus’s Mother” director Karina Fox.

“I love to work directly and collaboratively with actors because the show belongs to all of us,” she says.

In “Icarus’s Mother,” by Sam Shepard, a lazy picnic develops into a surreal nightmare. While a group of young picnickers waits for the fireworks, they start acting bizarrely — sending smoke signals from the barbecue, playing cruel mind games, and play-acting disasters. The group dynamic spins into chaos, and the disastrous fantasies somehow become a fiery reality.

“In this piece, Shepard takes a seemingly perfect world and allows it to devolve into something mysterious, complex, and even terrifying,” Fox says.

Like Evans, Fox draws a lot of inspiration from her playwright.

“I chose this play because of Shepard,” she says. “I think he’s one of our most insightful modern playwrights. He creates really complicated dramatic worlds that explore what it means to be human in new and inventive ways.”

“Shepard is widely produced and well-beloved,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to work with one of his earlier, less-produced works because I have a chance to really make it my own.”

Fox’s actors have spent the past few months of rehearsal digging deeply into the world of the play, examining group dynamics and trying to figure out what they would do in the face of crisis, she says.

This play was written in 1965, in the shadow of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination were recent memory, and anxieties ran high. Fox says the play’s uneasiness comes across as very contemporary in today’s similarly tense environment.

“I’m excited for the audience to experience the raw, human emotions that Shepard has created on the page,” she says. “It’s a fun play, but it’s also full of mystery and suspense. You will laugh as much as you are terrified.”

“New Visions Directors’ Festival: Falling” plays Nov. 30 – Dec. 4. Recommended for mature audiences. Showtimes are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Regular admission tickets are $15. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8.

Tickets and information are available online at muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Studio Theatre in Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 West Chew St., Allentown.

Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg College is a highly selective, private, four-year residential college located in Allentown, PA., approximately 90 miles west of New York City. With an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, sciences, business, education and public health. A member of the Centennial Conference, Muhlenberg competes in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theater program in the top twelve in the nation for eight years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.

Sam Shepherd’s “Curse Of The Starving Class” At Muhlenberg College

Allentown, Pa. (Nov. 17, 2011) — Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Sam Shepard delves into the darkest corners of the American family in his 1978 play “Curse of the Starving Class,” opening Nov. 30 at Muhlenberg College.

Part of Shepard’s series of “family tragedy” plays, “Curse” continues the playwright’s exploration of the death of the American family—embodied by the Tate family, whose personal and financial struggles have pushed them to desperation. The New York Times called the play “Shepard’s most comic and most excoriating study of the indomesticity of the American household.”

“Curse of the Starving Class” plays Nov. 30 through Dec. 4 in Muhlenberg’s 100-seat Studio Theatre.

The production marks Muhlenberg faculty member Larry Singer’s return to the stage after 20 years. Singer teaches acting as a visiting assistant professor in the Theatre and Dance Department. He made his Broadway debut in 1980 and worked as an actor for the next decade, but since 1988 has worked primarily as a teacher and director.

A poll of Back Stage magazine readers named Singer the best scene study teacher and acting coach in New York City, in the magazine’s 2011 Back Stage Choice Awards. Singer says that “Curse of the Starving Class” has provided a challenging return to the stage.

“Shepard writes completely with his heart, trying to bear and expunge his own demons,” Singer says. “You just sense that as an artist, he’s not holding back, and he’s unequivocal in his determination to do that, and that inspires me as an actor to follow suit.”

Director Francine Roussel, also a faculty member in the Theatre and Dance Department, says the play has particular resonance now, in the wake of recent financial scandals and what she calls America’s growing distrust of the elite.

“The greed of American culture is a dominant theme in the play—how that greed overwhelms the characters’ sense of family,” Roussel says. “The play is talking about the dysfunctional family, but it also has the bigger context that is the crisis of capitalism, and the risk of the excesses that are beyond the individual crisis of this family.”

“Curse of the Starving Class” tells the story of the Tate family, barely subsisting on a scrap of a California avocado farm. The son, Wesley, stands on the precarious edge of manhood, his prospects dim, while his sister Emma immerses herself in 4-H projects and horseback fantasies. Their father Weston, played by Singer, has driven the family deep into debt, but he’s got a scheme to sell the place and start fresh. He has no idea that his wife Ella is cooking up a scheme of her own.

Roussel says the Tates are doomed from the start—by Weston’s alcoholism, by greed, and by their inability to come together as a family.

“The parents are behaving more like children, and the children are being forced to grow up very fast and to try to be responsible,” she says. “But of course they haven’t been given the tools to do that, to grow up. The family members cling to each other and claw at each other at the same time; they feel like they need each other to survive, but like they’re trapped.

“There’s a beautiful image at the end of the play,” Roussel says, “of an eagle who is flying in midair with a cat hanging by its claws from the eagle’s chest. They are destroying each other. And even though they’re trying to survive, both of them will eventually fall to their death.”

Singer says that, besides the playwright’s brutal honesty and excoriating, dark sense of humor, what most distinguishes Shepard’s writing is its sense of rhythm.

“The rhythms are challenging at first,” he says, “but after a while you feel like you’re galloping along with a horse. It’s a great feeling. Sometimes you fall off, and it hurts, but otherwise galloping is a great rhythm.”

The play presents some unique production challenges—chief among them, that it calls for a live lamb to join the cast.

“We have to make sure it’s not too big, make sure it’s used to being handled by humans and not just wild in the fields,” Roussel says. “That remains our number one concern.”

Muhlenberg College‘s Theatre & Dance Department is the top-rated college performance program in the country, according to the Princeton Review‘s 2012 survey report. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa, offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance.

“Curse of the Starving Class” will be performed Nov. 30 – Dec. 4: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 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 Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.    ***For mature audiences***

Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre