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The actors in Theatre Horizon’s production of Athena deserve combat pay—and not just for executing the physical demands of Gracie Gardner’s script. This slyly funny, sneakily affecting exploration of friendship, competition, and growing up requires its performers to mine the authentic depths of teenage self-discovery. It’s a task that often seems more intensely dangerous than the fencing matches that bookend the play.
That elite, high-impact sport proves a surprisingly fertile backdrop to consider the ins and outs of competition and camaraderie. Mary Wallace (Campbell O’Hare) and Athena (Kira Player) parry and lunge with balletic precision that occasionally devolves into frenzied abandon. Yet over the course of 90 intermissionless minutes, they regularly seem more in control of their relationship and their passions on the piste than in the charged interactions that take place between training drills and qualifying bouts.
Gardner builds a study in contrast for this two-hander. Mary Wallace, a painfully earnest goody-two-shoes from New Jersey, takes up fencing in the hopes of winning a college scholarship; she comes across as perennially younger than her 17 years. The Manhattan-bred Athena boasts of a fast lifestyle under the not-too-watchful eye of her journalist father. The pair’s contrasting personalities and social strata permeate every aspect of Kathryn MacMillan’s production, right down to Natalia de la Torre’s costumes: Mary Wallace’s pilfered from Craigslist, Athena’s exquisitely tailored and top of the line.
Both girls harbor secrets that infuse the fast-paced banter occupying most of the drama’s action. In Athena’s case, it forms the backbone of her identity—her goddess-like moniker is a sobriquet for the sport, her real name a somewhat closely guarded mystery. Even as the pair become progressively closer through daily sparring matches at the fencing gym, Gardner maintains a sense of carefully constructed distance that impedes the possibility of them ever becoming true friends. As both characters are coming into adulthood, this sharply mirrors how teenagers regularly pick and choose which aspects of their personalities to bolster or subjugate. Just as in fencing, it becomes all about making the right move.
MacMillan’s fast-paced production runs at the speed of an adolescent mind. There is authenticity in the way that Mary Wallace and Athena rarely have a moment to linger in a cutting remark or aggressive move on the court. They are moving onto the next trial even as pain, resentment, or anger continue to fester. This forms the complicated architecture of a connection that approaches friendship but never fully loses its transactional nature.
The raw material
Although Gardner’s writing is sharp, you could imagine how Athena might come off as monotonous in the wrong hands. Despite the confrontational nature of the subject, much of the drama lacks conflict, and some of the themes expressed here have been handled more creatively in other contemporaneous works, like Clare Barron’s Dance Nation or Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. Much credit is due to O’Hare and Player for infusing their characterizations with layers of complexity that occasionally delve deeper than the script itself.
O’Hare foregrounds the flint beneath Mary Wallace’s cheerfully ingratiating surface. Even as she professes a desire to be liked by all, you can sense and see the vicious competitor waiting to emerge. Player suggests an aching self-doubt behind Athena’s steely reserve. She is far more affected by the words and deeds of others than she lets on. Another pair of performers could easily play just the top notes of these characters, but O’Hare and Player create three-dimensional personalities out of people who are still very much in the raw material stages of their lives.
And yes—they do spar their way across Christopher Haig’s blindingly white set, their match scores illuminated behind their backs in Damien Figueras’s projections. J. Alex Cordaro choreographs these battles with pulse-quickening precision. O’Hare and Player also perform stretching exercises, yoga poses, and calisthenics as they bare their souls. They can safely skip the gym for the remainder of the run.
But Athena is as much an emotional workout as a bodily endurance test. In that regard, Theatre Horizon has a palpable hit on their hands.
What, When, Where
Athena. By Gracie Gardner, directed by Kathryn MacMillan. $2-$35. Through June 5, 2022, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania. (610) 277-1056 or theatrehorizon.org.
Theatre Horizon requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination to attend, and masks must be worn at all times. Seating is not distanced.
Theatre Horizon is an ADA-compliant venue with all-gender bathrooms.
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