Studio 200’s show parries with audience heartstrings

“Athena,” a play about high school friendship told through fencing, opened Sept. 28 in Studio 200, the black box theater space at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Studio 200 is a compact room with no windows. The walls, ceiling and floor are all painted black, and a small center stage is raised just a foot above the ground. The audience sits on opposite sides of the stage, which has several spotlights and colored LEDs trained on it.

The light and sound production is manned by stage crew members in their semi-enclosed control box, each person armed with a softly glowing Mac computer. For this show, opposite corners of the stage were occupied by partial constructions of quintessential teenage bedrooms. Each “room” had a desk and a door, but different props pointed to differences in the rooms’ inhabitants: a poster here, a pencil sharpener there.

Sitting in the back row of seats against the wall makes the entire studio visible, and the panoramic shifting of one’s eyes prompts the revelation: wow, they crammed a lot of equipment in here! The compact nature of the room made the details of the set more apparent than in larger auditorium plays, which immediately made the show feel more immersive than normal, before it had even started. Parents in the audience fiddled with bouquets wrapped in cellophane. One woman leaned towards the person sitting next to her, eagerly pointing at the paper program she got at the door. In their little box, a stage crew member pointed at another crew member’s illuminated computer screen, clicking the mouse a few times.

Another interesting thing about the play: there were only two characters, so, only two actors: Lee Chaloemtiarana as Mary Wallace and Isla Gordon as Athena, the title character.

“Athena,” penned by playwright Gracie Gardner, was a New York Times critics’ pick when it debuted in 2018. The play begins with Athena whacking Mary Wallace in the arm with a fencing sword (professionally known as sabres, épées, and foils, depending on the discipline) and ends with the two tearfully sharing a cupcake in the aftermath of a state fencing competition. The story follows the initially competitive but then transformative friendship between the two characters.

Chaloemtiarana said starring in a play with only one other actor was a new experience for him. “I’d never done anything like that before,” he said. “Our connection outside the stage grew along with Mary Wallace and Athena’s connection, so the show felt complete. We didn’t need anybody else.”

Aasha Puri, the student director of the play, pointed out the intricacies of casting a two-person show. “We needed to make sure that the actors would have at least a little bit of chemistry and would be good at acting together. Lee and Isla showed that from the very beginning,” she said.

Despite the small cast, the length and quality of the play never suffered, with no lines missed and topping off at well over an hour long. With only a few weeks of rehearsal and practice, it was evident the cast and crew for the show were passionate and driven, giving their all for the success of the show. It wasn’t without its obstacles, however. Chaloemtiarana contracted COVID early in the rehearsal process, which meant he had to do a lot of work at home. “I recorded myself doing all my lines and just listened to it on repeat,” he said. “I did it over the phone with Aasha even though I was hacking and coughing. I also remember practicing the fencing choreography with a pencil in my bed because I couldn’t get up without wanting to pass out!’”

Fortunately, they didn’t have to use pencils in the performance. Puri explained, “We wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Our budget was 75 dollars; we couldn’t buy all the stuff. Liam Schweitzer ended up lending us his fencing gear. I knew him from CAST (the theater program at Julian Middle School) so I knew he’d be reliable.”

Both members of the “Athena” cast related to their characters. Gordon recalled, “One of my friends saw this show the first night and she came up to me and literally screamed at me, like, ‘you literally just played yourself!’ I yell a lot in the show and that just feels so good to do, especially as a female presenting person, just to kind of let it out.”

Mary Wallace had a lot of emotional moments in the play, which resonated with Chaloemtiarana, who said, “I like crying on stage.”

The cast all emphasized their love for Studio 200, pointing out that all of the directors are students. As Chaloemtiarana put it, “we can relate to them more, which makes us form a closer connection with our directors.”