April 18 marked the long-awaited opening night of NYU Abu Dhabi's student-led production of The Odyssey, adapted and directed by NYUAD Associate Professor of Theater Rubén Polendo. Performed at Manarat al Saadiyat, the show was the collaborative effort of student actors as well as artists, directors, and producers from both NYUAD and Theater Mitu, Polendo's professional theater company.
The Odyssey, one of Homer's best-known epics, tells the story of the Greek warrior Odysseus, who is returning home to his family after battling in the Trojan War. In the hands of Polendo, the tale of Odysseus' 10-year journey breaks away from its traditional interpretations. "Rubén's rendition of The Odyssey is hyper-theatrical," said NYUAD freshman Bhavna Menon. "It is as much the audience's job as the actors' to materialize the play into the imagination."
Originally adapted in 2003 in collaboration with Pan-Hellenic Archaeologist Shannan Stewart and Theater Mitu, the play was "deeply informed by pre-Hellenic and Hellenic ideas," Polendo explained. "In terms of the staging, the major influences and inspirations were Japanese Noh theater and Japanese anime, Vajrayana Buddhism storytelling rooms, the work of [modern dancer] Pina Bausch, [experimental theater company] the Wooster Group, and [American filmmaker] David Lynch."
"It's definitely a departure from the toga-wearing, sword-wielding cliché of Ancient Greece," said NYUAD freshman Nia Wilson. "The mythology of The Odyssey is incredibly complex and often contradictory, so some of the choices Rubén has made with regards to characters or plot may have been surprising — in a good way, we hope."
Rubén's rendition of The Odyssey is hyper-theatrical. It is as much the audience's job as the actors' to materialize the play into the imagination.
Polendo's Odyssey meditates on the theme of "home," a topic pertinent to NYUAD's international community. It explores questions such as "What does home mean, how do we find it, and how do we create it?"
With long weekday and weekend rehearsals, the actors themselves felt that they had accompanied Odysseus on his journey. "Being part of The Odyssey stretched and challenged me as a student, as a woman, as an actress, and as a person," reflected NYUAD sophomore Valentina Vela. "From the technical aspect, I have learned about my voice and my body and have been physically and emotionally challenged by my characters and the play as a whole. I have also been challenged by everyone who was part of The Odyssey — by their talent, dedication, and work. As a cast, we have grown a lot, I think, and have taught each other many things."
Through The Odyssey, Polendo has once again achieved Theater Mitu's goal of Whole Theater, a theatrical experience that is at once rigorously visual, aural, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. As NYUAD sophomore Nikolai Kozak (pictured above), who played Odysseus, said, "That was the power of this play — we treated our audience like few others do; we demanded an incredible amount of imagination and engagement. By doing this, we wove together a concept that completely blew us away when we first encountered it."
NYUAD's adaptation of The Odyssey is all about home (The National)
Photo by Chani Gatto-Bradshaw