War of the Girls

Grant Johnson on Gracie Gardner's Athena

Gracie Gardner, Athena. Performance view, JACK, Brooklyn, 2018. Abby Awe, Julia Greer. Photo: Mike Edmonds.

IN THE OPENING SCENE OF GRACIE GARDNER'S LATEST PLAY, ATHENA, the titular teenage fencer (played by Julia Greer) celebrates defeating her opponent Mary Wallace (Abby Awe) by letting out an animalistic scream. Watching Mary Wallace sob, Athena offers, “I get emotional too. Sometimes, after I lose? I’ll bump into a random person on the street, on purpose. And I won’t say sorry.” If the world demands we be either one kind of person or the other—winners or losers—Athena charts an emotional range, asking what is appropriate behavior for two young women, and what might be too much.  

Choosing to train exclusively with one another in preparation for the most important match of their young careers, the young women spar over and over again with both their swords and their words. While they hone their athletic skills, their evolving conversation betrays young minds eager to connect with an intellectual equal with whom they can let down their guard, test out assorted hot takes—“Like Roman Holiday is just about a good haircut”—and share nascent theories about life. They’re opposites, complimentary foils for one another, Mary Wallace from suburban Teaneck, New Jersey, and Athena from New York City. Their allusive, mercurial witticisms convey minds wiser than their years and experience, though all is tempered by the performers’ awkward, intense, and at times stilted deliveries. Their hyper-articulate teen talk runs in the vein of writers like Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls, and anticipates conflicts that persist into adulthood, pitching the play, the work of a young playwright, as more than just a youthful sojourn.

“Are you one of those people who saw Princess Bride and decided you wanted to fence?” asks Mary Wallace, but Athena prefers Game of Thrones. They enthuse about the etymology of the Amazon warriors both because Gloria Steinem wrote about them, and because they’ve seen Wonder Woman. Within their Socratic exchanges, the play registers the next wave of feminism as posited by pop culture, in postulations unique to sports, film, and television. If Athena portrays both the risk and reward of female friendship, it’s in good company, recalling the fraught dynamics between the “brilliant friends” of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, or a scene from a similar fencing match blow-up between Gilmore Girls frenemies Rory and Paris, when the betrayed Paris brandishes her weapon and shouts, “I can’t believe I ever considered you my best friend!”  

Gracie Gardner, Athena. Performance view, JACK, Brooklyn, 2018. Julia Greer, Abby Awe. Photo: Mike Edmonds.

Indeed, when the game at hand mandates both a victor and a vanquished, a stalwart friend eventually begins to look like worthy competition, and vice versa. “I love knowing for a moment that I’m objectively better than someone else,” states Athena, in one of the play’s defining lines. By placing characters versed in the lingo of contemporary feminism on the mat to duke it out according to fencing’s medieval one-on-one ethos, Athena asks if any tide that promises to lift all boats is actually possible for those who play to win.  

As such, Athena, as crisply directed by Emma Miller, makes perfect sense as a project for The Hearth, a production company devoted to female and non-binary artists, led by Greer and Emma Miller. Set designer Emmie Finckel’s fencing mat always remains on stage, evoking other limited (and limiting) social arenas, from the fashion runway to the lap pool. The theater’s interior is covered in crinkled aluminum foil, punning the name of Athena and Mary Wallace’s weapons of choice. Although highly reflective, the foil’s surface makes it impossible to see yourself, or anything else, accurately mirrored in it. It enhances the kinetic energy put off by the protagonists, and reinforces our sense that the play’s only realized characters (a third fencer makes a brief appearance in the final scene) are stuck here. Their light bounces back at them, cooking them like a pair of baked potatoes.  

Mary Wallace wins their final bout, reversing the power structure with which the play began, but this time, things are not so free of emotion for the play’s namesake. “You let me win,” Mary Wallace accuses, and she’s not the only one wondering why Athena’s typical ruthlessness has suddenly waned. Mary Wallace admonishes Athena for going soft on her, tarnishing the achievement of her win by not giving the match her all. “I didn’t take anything from you! I gave it to you,” Athena contends. 

Just moments before this climactic scene, Mary Wallace confesses a sexual fantasy about her teacher, Mrs. Oskarsen—a moment that shifts the play’s Sapphic tensions from latent to explicit. Athena may have forfeited the match out of love, but what kind? That of a friend, or of a lover? Are her feelings platonic or erotic? Is Athena dominant or submissive? A surrogate mother, or a needy daughter? This ambiguity is the play’s achievement: Admitting that our relationships are hardly ever as neat as the roles we play.  

Athena ran from September 5th to the 16th at JACK in Brooklyn, New York.