‘Athena’ achieves a palpable success at the Urbanite Theater | arts and entertainment

“Athena” by Gracie Gardner unsheathed her foils on the stage of the Urbanite Theater.

It’s a piece about fencing. But that’s a bit like saying that “The Tempest” is a play about the aftermath of a shipwreck. There is much more than that.

The setting is the Fencers’ Club in New York. Two high school juniors train for a national fencing competition. This is their first fight together. And their backgrounds and fighting styles are radically different.

Athena (Lea Sevola) is aggressive and in your face. Hitting his foil on his opponent’s shoulder is his signature move. And when Athena scores, she lets out a warrior’s cry of victory.

“Athena” is her self-chosen “fencing name” – a handful of a word like “Sting”. The character takes it from the Greek goddess – his model. (As she puts it, Athena is “just like the goddess of strategic warfare and all that.”)

But this Olympic grandiosity is absent from Athena’s family life. Outside of competition, she leads a life of quiet desperation, inhaling her father’s second-hand smoke in his cramped New York apartment. Anything beyond community college is out of reach. Winning national championships is Athena’s way out.

Mary Wallace (Emma Giorgio) is shy and politely apologetic. When she loses a point, she cries. Of course, she wants to win. But fencing is just a hobby for her. Mary is a privileged child. (A rich kid, in other words.)

She doesn’t need a student loan. Marine biology? No problem. Mary’s family will be happy to pay their share. If she finds herself and changes her specialty, they will pay too. Mary doesn’t need a way out. She’s already in it.

Class and temperament aside, these young women have something in common. They are both good fencers — and they both want to improve. They are nearly even as sparring partners.

Lea Savola (left) plays Athena and Emma Giorgio plays her foil, Mary Wallace. (Courtesy picture)

Despite their differences, they decide to continue training together.

And that’s what they do.

Athena and Mary Wallace start out as sparring partners, not friends.

But as William Blake once observed, “opposing is true friendship.” By fighting, Mary and Athena make each other better. In the process, they become friends. But can they stay that way?

It would be revealing.

And it’s hard to tell where this piece is going.

Dialogue and swordplay come and go. Literally. This is largely the result of the unconventional staging.

Live theater usually takes place behind a stage arch. This rectangular opening is an implicit window – the unseen “fourth wall” through which you spy on characters like a Peeping Tom with a ticket.

But “Athena” is far from typical.

The playwright is very specific about the direction she wants. Alyssa Mohn’s minimalist ensemble is stunning.

In this Urbanite production, the characters close (verbally and with foils) on a “track” – a catwalk running from one end of the room to the other. The audience sits on either side of this strip, watching the actors come and go. Here you are not a voyeur looking through a window. You are in the bedroom.

Now let’s move from swords to words.

There is music to Gardner’s speech – rhythmic, jerky counterpoint. In “Athena”, no one walks around or does monologues. His dialogue is a series of short, sharp shocks. Imagine a play by Pinter about two women fencers…

Athena: I watch tapes.

Mary Wallace: I take notes.

Athena: I mentally catalog my mistakes.

Mary Wallace: I’m focusing on mine.

In addition to being sparse, Gardner’s speech is never on the nose. Its characters (like real-life teenagers) don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. They don’t telegraph their deepest desires. (“I need a friend.” Or whatever.) Aside from the psychopathic and athletic cliches, they don’t put their motives into words. (And probably not.) You have to figure this out on your own.

There is no bold in Gardner’s writing. Summer Dawn Wallace’s direction is just as lean and mean.

This scripted play strives to look unscripted. Wallace succeeds in evoking the urgency of the now. The two young actors too. They are in the moment. And have no idea of ​​the times to come.

Kudos, too, to Katherine Coyl’s expert fight direction. His swordplay doesn’t look choreographed. Obviously it must. Otherwise, the actors could be injured. But if it’s not done right, their fights can look fake.

Coyl always keeps it real. (Or apparently real.)

Alison Gensmer’s costumes skillfully reveal and conceal. When not dressed, Athena’s street costume is tough on the working class; Mary Wallace’s outfits are tasteful and upscale. Gensmer’s clothes make the character – like portable shorthand that individualizes them. But their fencing uniforms are just impersonal. They hide the faces of the shooters. Wire mesh masks are all you can see. It makes the actors look like serial killers from a grindhouse horror movie.

OK, that sounds pretty scary. But Gardner’s play is about laughter, not slaughter. It’s a comedy, folks. But a comical spoonful of sugar knocks off serious medicine. Between the laughs, the playwright reveals the hidden wounds of the characters…

Their story is deeply personal. But it also aims to highlight America’s obsession with winners and losers.

Sport is a zero-sum game. Most sports plays and movies are too.

You want to know the final score! Rocky? Eric Liddell? Pierre LaFleur? Who won?

In a typical sports game, that’s the big question. “Athena” doesn’t even ask.

Gardner is interested in a very different question…

Is William Blake right? Does fierce competition create friendship – or kill it?

The end of the playwright gives him the answer. I’m not sure I agree.

But I won’t give it away.

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