Start with two 17-year-olds. Add the stress and competition of training for the Junior Olympics. Now add swords—they’re fencers—and then put their lives onstage and see what happens.
“Badass teenage girlhood,” said Maggie Schmitt, one of two directing “Athena,” which takes the stage this weekend at the Stoner Theater at 221 Walnut St. in downtown Des Moines.
The show runs 80 minutes without an intermission and is in an intimate space where the audience will be on three sides of the performers.
“I was immediately hooked by this really truthful and honest portrayal of teenage female friendship, and that relationship feels so real and raw on the pages,” Schmitt said about what drew her to the show. “I read it and I could already see the show.”
The show has only three actors—all women—and Schmitt said that allows audiences to connect to the characters and get invested for the ride more easily than they might with more characters.
There’s also the fencing.
“One thing I just love about this show is how physical it is,” said Brittny Rebhuhn, the show’s other director.
She said she loves theater that can pull in audiences with athleticism, and the actors learned how to play that up for the biggest benefit.
“We hit gold with three amazing actors who are also amazing athletes,” Schmitt agreed.
Alex Wendel, one of two artistic producers for the Iowa Stage Theatre Company, said the cast got fencing lessons from Steven Behrends and Melanie Lahart, both certified fencing coaches and founders of the Central Iowa Fencing Academy and the DMACC (Des Moines Area Community College) Blades.
“They have trained our actors to fence, and then we—as directors and producers who have experience with stage combat—then go in and we translate,” Wendel said.
Rebhuhn said fencing itself is fast and technical, and moving it to the stage provided a fun challenge.
“While the actors were learning the techniques and the speed of it, we also had to had to work with letting some of those things go to make it work for the stage and work for the piece,” she said.
“That being said, we noticed as we worked through the process that we would choreograph things after a fencing lesson and then we would revisit it in about a week’s time, and the amount of growth the actors had in just their fencing ability was super impressive and just felt like gold,” she continued.
Having all of that in the intimate space of the Stoner Theater was another fun challenge, especially because the stage isn’t only serving as a fencing studio.
“This play also jumps a lot,” Rebhuhn said. “It takes place over the course of the year … So we’re in the fencers’ club, then one minute we’re in a rave, the next minute we’re in an orthodontist’s office.”
To help with those transitions and time jumps, Wendel hired a local musician, Javier Lopez of Goatfoam, to write music for the show.
“There’s all these moments of transition that he has underscored, so I hope that the audience goes on this ride and is transported with the actors and with us in the story,” Rebhuhn said.
Alyson O’Hara is another local who contributed talent to the show. A multi-disciplinary artist in Des Moines, she created art for the show, including the poster.
Because the focus in on teenage girlhood, the directors said they were inspired by punk music and going for a similar vibe.
Rebhuhn said audiences should get hyped for “a rocking good time.”
Tickets are $40 for regular guests, $25 for students and “huge day-of matinee discounts,” according to Wendel.
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