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Athena, now playing at the Writers Theatre, is all about fencing and not about fencing at all.
The stage is a piste – the official flat strip or platform where fencers compete. The audience is seated above and on both sides of the action. The two teenage fencers spend most of their time on stage in fencing gear. Action, action and more action is happening all the time.
The conversations, though, are about anything but fencing. They are about two teenagers, Athena and Mary Wallace, making connections that will change their lives.
I don’t know enough about fencing to tell whether their techniques are good or bad but I do know enough about dialogue, acting and choreography to recognize that the performance at Writers Theatre is a phenomenal production.
In the play, the audience is introduced to Athena (played Mary Tilden) and Mary Wallace (Aja Singletary) at their first meeting as practice partners.
The two are getting ready for a competition that could change Athena’s life.
Wallace is already confident of her future. Fencing only adds to her control and discipline.
Advance and parry – both fencing actions – also become the themes of their relationship.
First, the words are but descriptions of the moves they practice: Advance on your opponent, then parry or back off to prepare for the advance again.
Soon, advance and parry also describe the emotional path for the two fencers to share their personalities, hopes and lives.
At first, Athena won’t even use her real name with Wallace, but eventually she reveals her fears and aspirations in well-choreographed scenes in which their warm-up exercises become more and more synchronized, in concert with the sharing of their lives.
They advance in sharing personal information, parry when one thinks she might be getting too close, and then advance again. Reveal too much and it’s time to retreat.
But then the advance starts again and soon they are intimate collaborators. The question is, can the two fencers be both friends and competitors?
The constant physical movement accompanying the conversations is choreography at its best. This play, with only two actors, is a study in constant motion and activity. No rest is allowed in this performance for the actors or the audience. The director did a superb job.
The actors have their work cut out for them. The activities are physical and, at times, very funny, but it’s the emotions that capture the essence of the performances.
Athena displays the defensive attitude of a teenager who says she doesn’t want to be close to anyone but also the vulnerability of a teenager who desperately needs closeness. She is successful in achieving both with her facial expressions, her mannerisms and her voice.
Wallace displays the assurance of a disciplined and controlled teenager but also has an appreciation for uncontrolled passion. She, too, succeeds in every way.
They are a pleasure to watch as they move from strangers to reluctant fencing partners to confidantes.
That two actors can carry a play with such physical and emotional energy is remarkable.
The last fencing scene can be viewed as a surprising change of roles or as a dramatic tribute to the respect and friendship they create with each other.
The personal questions posed in this production are universal: What does it mean to be a friend? How do you open up to people? What responsibilities come with closeness and trust? When does competition help to create confidence? And when does it interfere with growth and maturity?
This performance, while dynamic for adult audiences, begs for parents and grandparents to take their teenagers to experience the best of live theater and to have provoking conversations afterward.
Athena runs through July 10 at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Tickets range from $35 to $90 and $25 for students. For more information call the box office at (847) 242-6000 and or visit the website.
Masks for audience members are required during the performance and proof of vaccination and photo ID also are necessary.