The Odyssey Abridged a labor of love for cast and crew

A hungry Cyclops.  The meddling gods of Olympus.  The stirring singing of sinful sirens. What is a sailor to do?

One of the best known Greek dramas ever written comes to life with a contemporary telling when the Northeast State Department of Theatre stages The Odyssey Abridged: A Puppet Journey of Epic Proportions in November at the main campus.

Based on The Odyssey by Homer, the play tells the story of Greek hero Odysseus and his long journey home after the Trojan War. The Odyssey Abridged is an original adaptation written and directed by Northeast State’s own Brad McKenzie.  The Northeast State Theatre crew pulls out all the stops for this lavish stage production that will amaze audiences.

“Our motto of this theatre department is, ‘Go big or go home,’” said McKenzie, Northeast State Theatre’s technical director.  “This production goes beyond anything we’ve done yet.”

A Lotus eater puppet.
A Lotus Eater puppet.

This ambitious motto has paid big dividends for the department.  Northeast State Theatre students have won acclaim and awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) for three consecutive years.  The program’s reputation gives students moving to four-year institutions considerable respect from academic and theatre professionals alike.

The production follows Odysseus as he sails back to his home of Ithaca following the Trojan War.  He sets sail through the perilous Greek islands dodging the one-eyed Cyclops, the ravenous Scylla, and the seductive sounds of the Siren women. McKenzie’s Odyssey tells the tale as a comic adventure bridging classic Greek drama with postmodern storytelling.

The journey of Odysseus to reunite with his wife Penelope and son Telemachus takes the audience deep into the protagonist’s mind as he recalls his adventures.  The play sticks to the classic human meditations on the individual’s struggle against an unforgiving universe.  The Northeast State Theatre takes audiences further with larger-than-life special effects and puppet characters.

“This is our most ambitious production to date,” said Elizabeth M. Sloan, director of Northeast State Theater. “I am so impressed with Brad’s vision and the work of our students.”

The Odyssey Abridged is the second foray into ancient Greek following the acclaimed Oedipus Rex production in 2011.   The production retains the universal human issues of finding home, death, fear, and time while making an ancient tale accessible to modern audiences.

“One of my eternal teaching missions is to make Greek theatre cool for students,” said McKenzie.

Hannah Duncan portrays the Greek goddess Athena who serves as a narrator and occasional interventionist deity to Odysseus.

“The great thing about Greek theatre is how those universal themes resonate in the modern-day,” said Duncan, a theatre major.  “We have the freedom to be creative with the storytelling form.  We really work as a family with a lot of great support in the department.”

Northeast State Theatre alumnus Aaron Bradley is the primary sound designer and narrates much of Odysseus’ memories with several long monologues.

“It is going to be a true stage spectacle,” said Bradley.  “We spend almost every waking hour now working on the production.  I’ve literally fell asleep reading the script.”

Theatre student Todd Burris composed original music for the production.  He compiled both music and sound effects to create a consistent theme for the play.

“I’m using music samples drawn from multiple sources, synthesizers, and real world sounds,” said Burris.

Theater students will operate the gigantic puppet characters.
Theater students operate the gigantic puppet characters.

Building the puppets fell to KCACTF award-winning theatre student Richard Curtis.  He designed the puppet characters to be both scary and functional for the actors controlling them.

“We’ve done some incredible things, but this ranks as the largest project I’ve ever done,” said Curtis.

A Northeast State alumnus and KCACTF award-winning theatre professional, McKenzie has served as adjunct faculty member and technical director of the department’s productions for three years.  He said he was most proud that the play’s all-student crew was building the set, designing the costumes, and creating the technical effects for the play.

“The exciting thing for me is the production is 100 percent designed by current and former Northeast State theatre students,” said McKenzie.  “This is really a showcase for my students.”

The Odyssey performances are Nov. 14-16 and Nov. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. with two matinée showings at 2 p.m. on Nov. 16 and Nov. 24.  Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online now at www.northeaststate.edu.  Tickets are free to Northeast State students with valid student identification.  For more information, contact Northeast State Theatre at 423.354.2479 or e-mail emsloan@NortheastState.edu.

“We’ve never done half the things we are doing in this play,” said McKenzie. “The students are getting opportunities here that they cannot even get at a four-year institution.”

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