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Theater professor adapts "Odyssey" for the stage

New Mexico State University theater professor Tom Smith has adapted Homer's ancient Greek epic, "The Odyssey," for a younger audience, making it exciting and entertaining for the whole family.

Ken Peterson poses thoughtfully during a rehearsal for "The Odyssey." (New Mexico State University photo by Darren Phillips)

as commissioned by The Creede Repertory Theatre to adapt "The Odyssey," which will tour throughout New Mexico and parts of West Texas after premiering on campus Oct. 26 and 27.

He was allowed only four actors and 50 minutes to tell the tale of Pete and his friends as they try to get home through a maze of monsters and sea creatures. He said that it was difficult at first to adapt a play with so many adult themes.

"It wasn't until I wrote the first draft that I realized how violent it was," he said. He worked to exchange weapons, violence and other adult issues with creative solutions that made sense.

The production team, consisting entirely of students, is using a combination of body puppets and masks to create intricate puppetry. Smith said most of the production's inspiration came from Julie Taymor, the director and costume designer for the Broadway production of "The Lion King," who used revolutionary designs for masks, puppets and costumes in that production.

The director of "The Odyssey" is Kellene Rees, a senior at New Mexico State. She is using different methods to create size differences between the monsters and human characters of the play.

"It was important to me to remind the audience of the scale of monsters as compared to people," Smith said.

Rees also had the challenge of creating a set design that would fit into the back of a van. She and her set designer, Jocelin Meesenburg, also a senior, created a set that would play at a wide variety of venues, including schools and stages.

Aside from the action, Smith wanted to get a message to the kids who see the show -- a message of self-reliance and dealing with problems using your brain instead of violence. "I feel like that's a good message to send to kids -- you can trust your own instincts, make your own decisions and be empowered," he said.

"The Odyssey" is the first production at New Mexico State to be directed, designed and built by completely students. Smith said it is a great chance for students to have their work displayed for an audience.

"It's been great to see the students put what they've learned to use," he said.

The play is not just for youngsters, he added. "This is a children's show that anyone who has to read 'The Odyssey' should see," he said.

Smith's adaptation will be published by Encore Performance Publishing for release next spring.

The public performances will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 and 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Oct. 27 in the Hershel Zohn Theatre on the New Mexico State campus. General admission tickets are $4 for adults and $3 for children and New Mexico State students.

For more information or to reserve tickets, call (505) 646-4515.