Allentown Public Theatre unveils a playfully dark fantasia of woman-warriorship.
ALLENTOWN: This past September, Allentown Public Theatre staged the world premiere of the new play Then Athena as part of the 2016 Philly Fringe Festival. This November, the show will make its Lehigh Valley debut at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley.
“Then Athena is brave and brazen, campy and critical,” said one Philadelphia critic. Devised as a raw collaboration between five different professional theatre artists, Then Athena intercuts stories of fourteen women characters – some historical, some from pop culture, some completely new – as they confront the fraught identity of “heroine” in modern American mythologies. “The four creators deliver compelling performances throughout, each managing to find moments where they individually shine brightest,” said one Philadelphia reviewer. Now, the five artists return to their home to perform the piece in Allentown.
Performed by actor/writers Samantha Beedle, Holly Cate, Louise Howard and Anna Russell, and directed by Troy Dwyer, Then Athena is an experimental suite of work created in the spirit of European avant-garde devised theatre. “Because the performers are also the playwrights, we’re channeling stories tailor-made for our bodies,” says Russell, who is also Allentown Public Theatre’s Artistic Director. “This kind of work isn’t done much in the United States. These are the characters we want to embody, because we weren’t seeing their stories told justly anywhere else, if at all.”
Dwyer underscores the political urgency of Then Athena as a distinctly American endeavor. “On the one hand, the U.S. seems progressive when it comes to the intersection of gender and valor. Military combat roles for women and transpeople are opening. Come November, a woman might lead the nation. But on the other hand, so might Donald Trump. It’s that Trumpish ‘Miss USA’ notion of valor that makes us want to fight. And we fight with art.”
And there is both “fight” and “art” in Then Athena. “We’re costumed in military-style clothing,” says Cate. “And yes, we carry prop weapons, including assault rifles. But they’re all painted bright red. There is a ‘performance art’ feel.” But there is also humor, much of it supplied by stand-up comic Samantha Beedle, who plays a variety of roles. “It’s easy just to feel rage when you realize how the stories of women heroes are undervalued. I think that’s where I come in handy. Artists like Anna [Russell] just see red. I crack jokes. But trust me, they kill.”
Ranging from dark to darkly-humorous, the stories portray a wide variety of American women of all ages, and from all backgrounds. “I’m 64,” says Howard, “and it’s refreshing to be able to write and perform from my life experience, but also to stretch myself. I play an Army General in a minefield in Afghanistan, a wannabe Wiccan who communes with ancient goddesses, and even a comic book supervillainess battling Wonder Woman. I also get to sing a little country and Western number. It’s a feast.”
According to one Philadelphia critic, the success of Then Athena is “…as much a testament to the acting as it is the script,” featuring “…text that is at once poetic and natural, which gives the women multiple meaty characters to portray with aplomb.”
“Then Athena is fast with a lot of unexpected twists and turns,” says Dwyer. “I’ve never worked on anything quite so sharp, shocking and personal. It’s unapologetically feminist, cutting-edge and funny. And even though it’s imaginary, and reaches into history and mythology, it breathes with the real souls of the women who created it. In that way, it’s far from pretend. It’s happening right in front of you, a real confrontation of real heroines.”
Roberta Moyer, Managing Director