Athena – Review by Tom Holehan

The plucky Thrown Stone Theatre Company now in its fifth season has reopened at their intimate 50-seat venue after a pandemic delay with a double-bill of female-centric plays making their New England premieres. “Athena” by Gracie Gardner and “Hysterical!” by Elenna Stauffer will be offered in rotating repertory at the Ridgefield theatre under the banner, “GRL PWR”. The company is clearly not about to offer you summer comfort food with brainless comedies or frothy musicals. Good for them.

At this writing I have only seen “Athena” which was in excellent shape at its first preview last week. The lights rise and we are in the middle of a fencing match between the aggressive Athena (Shannon Helene Barnes) who has chosen the name because she is the goddess of strategic warfare, and sensitive Mary Wallace (Olivia Billings), a fencer of lesser skill but tremendous heart. They are polar opposites so naturally they must bond by agreeing to train together for the upcoming Nationals. And, like fencing, there is plenty of parry and thrust, advancing to and retreating from each other as we witness this uneasy friendship progress.

Like Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves” about a team of female soccer players, Gardner’s ear for how sporty teenage girls talk and spar is right on the money and it’s refreshing to see how seriously she takes them, passing no judgement in the process. It helps that the actors here are both terrific. Barnes’ brash bravado masks a crushing insecurity and Billings is touching and immensely funny especially in a 30-second sequence that finds the actress trying to speak while wearing a mouth guard. Priceless.

The 80-minute (no intermission) dramedy examines competition and friendship with some familiar tropes and, yes, you can pretty well guess where it all will end up. But director Tracey Brigden (a real “get” for Thrown Stone!) makes this inevitable scenario tense, funny and suspenseful while drawing consistently excellent performances from her actors. Fight Director/Choreographer Mark Silence has helped make the women very convincing competitors and the simple but effective scenic design is by Emmie Finckel. Expert lighting by Adam Lobelson and an essential sound design by Kevin Mambo and Jason Peck complete this polished production.

“Athena” continues in repertory with “Hysterical!” at Thrown Stone Theatre Company, 440 Main Street in Ridgefield, Connecticut through August 7. ID and proof of vaccination along with masks are required at all performances. For further information, call the box office at: 203.442.1714 or visit: www.thrownstone.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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