“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 through April 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 Thursday 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 muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 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.