Ehn’s ‘Saint Plays’ Tells Stories of Saints Through Hallucinogenic Dreamscape

News Image Muhlenberg College presents an evening of short plays with subjects ranging from Judas to Joan of Arc, Dec. 2-5

By: Clarissa Shirley ’22  Friday, November 12, 2021 02:12 PM

News Image


Allentown, Pa. (Nov. 12, 2021) As one might conclude from its title, playwright Erik Ehn’s “The Saint Plays” tells the stories of the Catholic saints and other biblical figures. However, “The Saint Plays” is no simple hagiography.

“We’re hoping that it winds up feeling like you just found yourself in someone else's dream,” says Muhlenberg theater professor James Peck. “It doesn’t make rational sense but instead a spiritual and emotional sense.”

Ehn's growing collection of plays includes more than 100 entries, loosely based on the lives of saints and biblical characters ranging from St. George to Joan of Arc. Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance will present six of them, Dec. 2-5 in the college’s Studio Theatre. Peck leads a group of four student directors for the evening.

Placing the protagonists and their suffering in a modern context, Ehn produces what he calls "contemporary fairy tales for the stage." His richly allusive, ecstatic, hallucinogenic performance poems cleave to hope and beauty in the aftermath of loss.

“The material is written by a very devout Catholic who also has some real critiques and suspicions about the ways that the institutional church embodied its mission,” Peck says. “The church has done a lot of harm in the world as well as good. That's very powerfully embedded in the plays.”

In addition to serving as artistic director, Peck directs “Incide,” which follows Judas Iscariot, the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him.

“Ehn has us looking at his story from different perspectives,” Peck says. “When it starts, Judas is someone who is carrying massive shame and guilt, from the incredible burden of knowing that he did something terrible.”

Peck hopes the piece will help the audience reevaluate their own humanity, and how they view people who have caused them harm.

“All humans have done things that we are remorseful about,” Peck says. “Judas is held up as an example of a really terrible man, which is an unfair way to think about him. Perhaps Judas could be approached as a saint — someone who knows the shame of having done something awful, and yet persists in trying to set his life back on a redemptive path.”

Ashley Hilary is directing “Wholly Joan’s,” a play about Joan of Arc, the 19-year-old French woman who led an army of men to victory in battle in the 15th-century.

“Since I was eight years old I have been obsessed with her story,” Hilary says. “She did all of these incredible things no one expected her to do, and she was just following what she thought was right.”

Hilary says that Joan heard voices — some people say from saints, some people say from God. This surreal internal world is represented in the play by an original soundscape.

Katie Keller is directing “The Freak,” the story of an imagined exchange between St. George, the dragon slayer, and Gunna, a girl who was born with wings in 1957 Stockholm.

“This play is about the courage that it takes to be authentic and the freedom that comes from that,” Keller says.

Keller says she is happy to start seeing the production elements of her piece come to life. She is particularly looking forward to working with a massive puppet, representing a younger version of Gunna.

“We have two puppeteers operating it,” she says. “I'm so excited to work with them and just explore and experiment with puppets and movement and how you can use them to tell a story.”

Savannah Hastings is directing “16670,” a play about Maximillian Kolbe, a man who was canonized after the Holocaust.

“‘16670’ highlights our complications with the past,” Hastings says. “Reliving the past can be hard when it’s dealing with the dark reality of our history. But it is those moments that are most important to acknowledge as they help us to move forward.”

Hastings was drawn to this piece because of Ehn’s intricate storytelling.

“He handles the subject so carefully and realistically,” she says. “He exposes the pain of the person who has to tell Kolbe’s story. Ehn does a great job of taking us on that journey right alongside him.”

Maddi Whiting is directing “Tree of Hope, Keep Firm,” a play that puts The Virgin Mary into conversation with her younger self.

“The figure of Mary is well known in institutional religion,” Whiting says. ”So I want to give new life and new agency to this female biblical character who has typically been viewed through the lens of men and God.”

Whiting says that Ehn writes about painfully beautiful humans who have been cast aside by society.

“This production showcases the beauty of trash,” Whiting says, “the things that have been discarded, and the people who are no longer seen as valuable.”

“The Saint Plays” will feature original music composed by Muhlenberg student Zach Montenegro. Muhlenberg alum Emilie Leasure serves as lighting designer, and seniors Sarah Levine and Hannah Michelson designed the costumes.

Hilary highlights that this play is not just for the devout.

“I want to make the distinction that I am not a super-religious person, but I am super interested in religion — in the way that we tell stories, how we construct our beliefs from myths or legends or stories,” Hilary says. “That’s what the play is about: an investigation of what it means to function in a world that has a higher power.”

“The Saint Plays” runs Dec. 2-5 in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College. Showtimes are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, with a campus price of $8 for students, faculty and staff of LVAIC institutions. Tickets and information at 484-664-3333 or muhlenberg.edu/seeashow.

About the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance Department
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.

About Muhlenberg College
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private, four-year residential, liberal arts college offering baccalaureate and graduate programs. With an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences; selected preprofessional programs, including accounting, business, education and public health; and progressive workforce-focused post-baccalaureate certificates and master’s degrees. Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, approximately 90 miles west of New York City, Muhlenberg is a member of the Centennial Conference, competing in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.