The production has been two continents and 10 years in the making – the same length as the arduous journey at its centre – but on April 18 the tale of how the legendary Greek hero Odysseus finally made his way from Troy back to Ithaca will be on stage in the capital.
The ambitious adaptation of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, brings to life the Hellenic myth complete with its six-headed creatures, magical sirens, one-eyed monsters, journeys to the depths of Hades, visions of war and, ultimately, the themes of love and hope.
Another kind of odyssey
Ruben Polendo, an associate professor and head of NYU Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) theatre department, began adapting the poem back in New York in 2003, where Polendo remains the artistic director of Theater Mitu, and long before NYU Abu Dhabi would open its doors to students.
At that time, Polendo and Theater Mitu teamed up with the archaeologist Shannon Stewart and began studying various translations of the text.
“My adaptation decompresses the text but maintains its value as an important document,” says Polendo. “It has to do with what moves me. It’s also about what ‘home’ means – an important question, especially here in the UAE, where people come from so many different places and we have to always redefine what home is.”
It was three years ago, upon moving to the UAE capital, that Polendo began to think it was the right time to move ahead with the production.
“When I told the students this is what I planned to direct, they all took a breath, because they felt
a connection,” says Polendo. “They recognised themselves in the
Polendo said he’s also found new, personal appreciation for what “home” means.
“Because my own questions around the piece have become more personal,” he explained. “Our university in 2014 will move to its new campus on Saadiyat so we are in a sense transposing our home, so I am much more aware.”
At the centre of this tale is King Odysseus’s captivity and obsessive and perilous journey back home. While gone, his wife Penelope and son, Prince Telemachus, who believe Odysseus to be dead following his failure to return after the fall of Troy, have to defend the kingdom from villainous suitors eyeing the throne and with plans to assassinate the prince.
In the end, explains Polendo, The Odyssey is a meditation.
“It’s about family and the overarching theme of striving for love and how it is there but sometimes eludes us,” he says. “About dreams and memories and how magical life can be. Nothing is what it seems. We are always surprised by life – yet that’s part of living.”
This is not the first time Polendo has brought this type of literature to the UAE stage. Last year, he directed an adaptation of the Indian poet Valmiki’s Ramayana – 24,000 couplets on the journey of Rama, which investigates love, identity, adulthood and dark emotions.
This weekend’s production, featuring a cast of 14, is a collaboration between Polendo, musicians and designers who have travelled from New York’s Theater Mitu, and students from NYU Abu Dhabi.
Polendo has found “their commitment is amazing. We have students from different departments such as music, philosophy and literature”.
Nikolai Kozak, a 20-year-old NYU Abu Dhabi student from Argentina, plays the role of Odysseus. He says it was the intriguing character, coupled with Polendo’s “alternative approach”, that attracted him to audition for the role.
“We often forget how striking and powerful human contact is,” Kozak says. “You can be the designer and interpreter of human emotion and this production shows what NYUAD students can bring. So get ready for a life-changing experience.”
Oscar Lozano, a 19-year-old NYUAD student from Spain who plays Telemachus, was also drawn by Polendo’s “exciting” approach.
“The play speaks directly to many people, especially those who are not from here,” he says. “Odysseus is on his journey and each place he visits along the way and learns from. He must go on this journey in order to return home.”
The Odyssey will be performed on April 18 (8pm), April 19 (2pm and 8pm) and April 20 (2pm) at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. The play is free but requires advance registration to attend. For details, visit www.nyuad.nyu.edu
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