Theater review by Helen Shaw
After a successful run this spring, Athena has returned for an encore at the experimental venue Jack. Gracie Gardner’s girls-who-fence drama is a lopsided bout: an unequal combat between impressively strong characterizations (aided by confident performances and Emma Miller’s direction) and a barely-there plot. Gardner captures the sound of high school girls’ dialogue with beautifully executed texture, particularly when they’re talking about the physical pain they’re willing to undergo, from athletics conditioning to Accutane to braces. But the playwright lets her guard down when it comes to propulsion and event.
Athena certainly contains the appearance of action. Two high school girls, the sheltered Mary Wallace (Abby Awe) and the tough-talking Athena (Julia Greer), bicker and spar and bond on a fencing piste. They’re training for a competition that will send one of them to Nationals, but how can they maintain the requisite cutthroat edge if they become friends? There’s a lot of physical movement and explicitly stated stakes—Mary Wallace wants to get recruited for college, Athena has trouble making friends—but Gardner is better at suggesting tension than at developing or complicating it. The best scene in the play, in fact, is wordless: a nicely choreographed climactic battle full of storytelling and detail. (Ryan Bourque is the fight director.) Even hidden in their giant beekeeper’s masks, we can see the girls’ personalities in their footwork: Brave little Mary Wallace comes into her opponent’s space again and again, while Athena shakes with adrenaline, making her foil vibrate in a way that seems suddenly out of control. Gardner makes them absolutely real to us, but the play never quite rises above character study. It’s light in the hand—a blunted épée, rather than the kind of sword that cuts.
Jack (Off-Off Broadway). By Gracie Gardner. Directed by Emma Miller. With Abby Awe and Julia Greer. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.