It’s late on Thursday evening, and Abu Dhabi’s Corniche is bustling with families, couples out for a stroll and children racing each other precariously on bicycles. Venture further, down on the beach, and all appears calm. Suddenly, a young man is pounced upon by another, the latter pummeling his victim with handfuls of sand. “That doesn’t look convincing enough,” says an affable figure. “Throw it in his face,” he adds, causing everyone – including the attacker and the attacked – to burst into laughter.
The speaker is Rubén Polendo, an associate professor of theatre at NYU Abu Dhabi, the struggling men are actors, Justin Nestor and Corey Sullivan, and the scene is a rehearsal of Chaos, which will open today. Produced by Polendo's theatre company Theatre Mitu, in collaboration with NYU Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, it has been billed as the first professional theatre show to be conceived, produced and performed in Abu Dhabi.
“We should have been rehearsing on the stage,” says Polendo, who is also the artistic director of the New York-based company, Theater Mitu, “but building has been delayed by half a day.
“No matter. When I saw everyone on the sand, surrounded by all the lights, I thought, ‘This is pretty amazing, isn’t it?’”
Chaos is inspired by a collection of short stories by Luigi Pirandello, the 20th-century Italian writer, dramatist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. The film Kaos, by the Palme d'Or-winning Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, and a Martha Clarke dance number, also called Kaos, have influenced the piece, too. The theme was one that spoke to Polendo immediately, and one that he felt would resonate with Abu Dhabi's international community.
“I encountered these beautiful short stories by Pirandello, and the core of those writings is about what happens to the human heart amidst travel, migrations, and changes,” he says.
Polendo, a former biochemist, goes on: “The stories asked the questions: how does love survive? how does hope survive? I was literally reading them and thinking, ‘that’s exactly what I’m going through, having just moved here.’ And then I spoke to my colleagues, I spoke to the students, and that’s what they were going through.”
Chaos may be Polendo's baby, but it's also thanks to the collaborative efforts of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, Theater Mitu, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) and, of course, the actors and stage crew (a mix of professionals and NYU Abu Dhabi students) that the show has come about.
Whether they are practising a scene in the sand or clambering about the stage – which, after taking five men two days to erect, is complete by the time of the weekend rehearsal – the bond between cast and crew is clear.
“We’ve all been working together and we all know each other so well,” says Sullivan, who has performed with Theater Mitu on and off for 10 years and who, along with the rest of the troupe, is visiting the UAE for the first time. “There’s a trust that we could tag team roles – although it is almost unheard of, in theatre, to swap parts, it’s just how it goes with Mitu – and it’s part of that trust that makes performing on the beach, and anywhere for that matter, possible. I feel like we could be dropped 20ft under water and we would still feel comfortable acting, because we have each other.”
Sullivan and Nestor are Theater Mitu veterans, as are Nathan Elam and Mia Katigbak. Also in the cast are Erin Buckley and Wil Petre, making their debuts with the company. Along with several NYU Abu Dhabi students in minor roles, they tackle roughly 45 characters altogether.
“It’s nice. It’s a nice new challenge,” says Nestor, who first came to Abu Dhabi in September, several months before most of the cast and crew. “I feel like the last couple of shows I’ve done with Theater Mitu, I’ve only had one character to focus on and, as a result, I’ve gotten to put my attention in a very singular direction.
"For a piece that, like Chaos, takes place in such a large landscape, it's actually nice to sink myself into six different characters; even more when you include all the minor characters who fill out the landscape. To play six characters and realise that at the heart of them all you're talking about the same thing, just through different lenses and perspectives, is also really nice."
“All these stories,” chips in Sullivan, “are all so dramatic. As for the roles we’re playing, it’s always great as an actor to be able to just bring out a character and let him live. As an actor you use a certain energy to carry a character over an hour. We use that same amount of energy, just compressed into 10 minutes.”
It is a sentiment that is shared by the others. “We have the joy of creating a lifetime in 10 minutes, or five minutes, or half an hour – depending on the section of the play,” says Elam. Rising from the sand where we’ve been sitting and chatting, he dusts himself off and makes his way back to the rehearsal, his work for the night only just beginning.
Acting aside, one of the most important and alluring aspects of Chaos is the medium in which the story will unfold, it being not only the first Theater Mitu show produced outside, but the first to be staged on sand.
“I’ve never performed outdoors,” says Katigbak, who will perform five different roles in the show. A small woman, but with a commanding voice and presence, she breaks into a smile as she remembers the first time Polendo approached her with the idea for the show.
“Rubén had told us what his plans were when we were in New York, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how fascinating’, and then I saw the design and I thought, ‘how beautiful!’ And then came, ‘uh, how do we get heard? How do we get dressed with all the sand?’ But the whole thing is just beautiful.”
Polendo shows me a picture on his laptop of a small structure, made out of coloured paper, explaining that it was his original idea for how the stage should look. Apart from the scale, of course, it is virtually identical to the finished version. “I never dreamt it would have worked out this way,” he says.
It is a basic layout. Compromising a small, square structure with an accompanying set of stairs, a long platform with a door at the end, and finished off with a big red curtain, it is offset by the backdrop of the ocean.
“As we discussed where to perform it,” answers Polendo, “it seemed obvious to me that it had to be a really special place.”
“We had help from Adach, who were happy to mentor us through the process. So we spoke to several venues and came up with ideas and then they [Adach] spoke to us about their experience producing events on the Corniche beach. The minute they said that, it all just came to me. I thought, ‘That’s it’.”
The stage is half in the water, he explains. “So when the curtain opens, you see the ocean. Once that happens, you’re done. The scenic design is gorgeous. A ramp that goes out towards the water, with a door that leads to everything – or,” he adds, “nothing.”
I let him get back to the rehearsal. It is a long and painstaking process, bringing every little detail to the required standard of perfection, and I watch as Nestor practises his leap from the small square structure again and again, until the choreographer, Scott Spahr, is happy with his stance upon landing in the sand.
But as the players continue their work into the night, I am reminded of a comment from Sullivan earlier that evening: “To perform the piece in one of the most beautiful places in the world, in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, is a pleasure. It’s not an obstacle in any way.”
• Chaos is on at 8pm on the Corniche beach (Gate 6) in Abu Dhabi, from tonight until Saturday. Entry is free, but booking is required. Visit www.theatermitu.org for information and tickets.