The immersive setting for Gracie Gardner's "Athena" is a high-performance piste - an officially raised platform where fencers compete in full-fencing gear using techniques, combat and exemplary disciplines to score winning points made through the weapon's actual contact with their dueling opponent.
It's a contest embellished by guttural screaming, slippery tactics and blade-to-blade swordplay, all breathlessly engaged for the pursuit of glory, status, position and oh, yes, friendship.
The Players, first introduced by Gardner as practice partners are Athena and Mary Wallace, two very disciplined and dedicated high schoolers from different backgrounds who become fast friends and eventual confidantes hoping to quality for nationals and perhaps, even the Olympics.
With the groundwork laid, Gardner crafts a skillful, intriguing, brisk two-character play of competition and adolescence, offset by precise fight choreography and personal reflection that heightens the set-up, the evolution, the conflict and the outcome of the story's confidant, growing, concentrated dynamic.
The vitality, urgency and metaphorical thrust of "Athena" is showcased with depth and recognition in Thrown Stone's shrewd, ambitious mounting of the playwright's 2018 work, which, as directed here by Tracy Brigden, unfolds with appropriate articulation, intensity, reward and fencing match exhilaration.
Gardner, as playwright, fills "Athena" with enough background information, research and technicality to make it both interesting and important, which, here at Thrown Stone, is embellished and enhanced with the kinetic energy and spirit concurrent in her writing, concept and penchant for both characterization, verbiage and storytelling.
"I get emotional too," Athena tells Mary Wallace. "Sometimes, after I lose, I'll bump into a random person on the street, on purpose. And I won't say sorry."
Much later, Athena admits, "I love knowing for a moment that I'm objectively better than someone else."
As "Athena" evolves, Gardner's work is well versed in lingo and story arcs that address feminism, sport, competition, background, achievement, sexual fantasy, coming-of-age, friendship, Sapphic tension, jealousy, ambiguity, opportunity, familial conflict, partnership, university, battle, swinging blades, forfeit and defeat. As such, there's depth and feeling here, played out straightforwardly with words and conversations that are essential, realistic and believable and never once out of sync with the storytelling at hand.
Staging "Athena," Tracy Brigden ("The Lifespan of a Fact," "Art," "The Price') fuels Gardner's work with connection, force and interest, showing that there is so much more here than just an ordinary tale of adolescence and competition. As the character's talk, parry, chat or move about the platform, anxious to blend in, stand out or make their mark, Brigden connects the dots with well-orchestrated definition and purpose that keeps the 80-minute performance focused and meaningful without any form of hesitation or calculation. Each scene - short, long or in between - makes it point with blocking, movements and precise staging choices that plunge the action forward with lucidity and drive, offset by mandated lighting cues, sound cues, music cues, costume changes and fencing choreography that complement and define the pending action.
Nothing is out of place. Nothing is thrown in for extra measure. Nothing is scuffed, bruised or bandied. Nothing is awkward or out of sync. There's tension. There's comedy. There's conflict. There's bonding. There's gaming. There's uncertainty.
It's all stirred and served with competitive delight and a natural, one-on-one, matter-of-factness by Brigden with much to admire as "Athena" inches forward with truths, twists, turns and impact until it reaches its justified, powered, emotional conclusion.
The Thrown Stone production stars Shannon Helen Barnes as Athena and Olivia Billings as Mary Wallace. Both actresses command the stage with important, intuitive, vivid performances that reflect the aesthetic, metaphor-packed allure of their individual characterizations, actions, innuendo, roars, fizz, demands, quirks and sweet spots. Everything they do is brilliantly timed, rehearsed and choreographed under Brigden's deft direction with able assist from Michael Martin (fencing coach) and Mark Silence (fight director). Their onstage camaraderie - a combination of poise, physicality, twinkle, fury, femininity and angst - is unleashed with such natural conviction, honesty and charm, one is quickly drawn into their story with a curiosity that never wavers for a moment.
A high energy exploration about women, friendship, sport and a clash of swords, Gracie Gardner's "Athena" is a witty, conversation fueled coming-of-age drama full of real-life action and banter, wonderfully calibrated by director Tracy Brigden.
It's shouty. It's forceful. It's fast. It's intriguing. It's challenging.
There's instinct and opinion here, matched by two passionate, energized performances that speak to the moment with well-established authority, exhilaration, genius and fascination.
Into all of this is the fencing, a combat sport of invention intricately tied to Gardner's thrilling character study of teenage duelists battling each other through choice, impact, transformation and the stirring velocity of splendid, well-placed wordplay.
Photos of "Athena" courtesy of Chuck Jennes Photography
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