Victory Gardens Theater
How to Defend Yourself
At the Victory Gardens Theater by Dan Zeff
Chicago –“How to Defend Yourself” at the Victory Gardens Theater brings together seven college students who attend a self defense course to learn techniques aimed at providing protection against sexual assaults. Five of the seven students are female, who seem to have the most to gain in surviving in a rape culture. The two other characters are male students who outwardly sympathize with the coeds but may really be trolling for sexual connections.
“How to Defend Your Yourself” is an ironic title for a play that covers ground well beyond how to deflect a sexual assault through physical or psychological ploys. At times one wonders if the characters, especially the females, think about anything else but sex. Yet the play is not a monotone. It’s funny, intense, and provocative, with both gay and lesbian themes. Indeed, the play tries to touch so many sexual bases that it often comes across as an unfocused and sometimes confusing dramatic stew.
The show is a world premiere, first developed as of the Victory Gardens 2018 IGNITION Festival of New Plays (co-sponsored with the Actors Theater of Louisville), which suggests playwright Liliana Padilla’s script is still open to revisions. The subject is topical and there are clusters of stimulating comments on the contemporary sexual scene, though I question whether this overheated group of students is representative of an entire generation. The workshop urgently beckons.
“How to Defend Yourself” is set in a college gymnasium environment that takes up the entire stage (a superb realistic set by Yu Shibagaki). In due course we meet the five females in the How to Defend Yourself course, led by instructor Brandi and her assistant Kara. The three female enrollees are Diana, Mojdeh, and Nikki. The early minutes are not promising. The tone is comical, eliciting lots of laughs from the audience, which suggests that this will be not so much an examination of a serious social problem as a basis for a trivializing sitcom. Later Andy and Eggo arrive as the male attendees and the play gradually ratchets up the intensity.
The characters are a diverse lot—African American, Hispanic, Asian, and WASP. An eighth character is an off stage sorority sister recovering in a hospital from a savage sexual assault. There is a bit of ethnic and racial byplay throughout the evening but Padilla wants to talk about sex, and talk about sex her characters do, in considerable detail. The language is R-rated and the discussions of sex acts are highly descriptive. There are intimate sexual relationships among the characters in assorted combinations and plenty of wounded feelings and resentments.
Padilla’s script suggests strongly that females take sex much more seriously than males. The females constantly dwell on their relationships with guys, as well as their preoccupation with virginity, oral sex, and sexual identity. In comparison, the two males are sexual lightweights. The play evokes a closed world of young people with no allusions to the outside adult world. Within those confines, the dialogue is often razor sharp in exploring what sex means to this specific set of characters and how it impacts on their lives.
With all the sexual banter and argument in the play, the most disturbing moment explodes near the end. The shy Nikki feels empowered by the defensive techniques she learns from Brandi, but she stumbles onto the stage following a sexual encounter with a young man. In response to Brandi’s queries about how her defensive training confronted the assault, the shaken and resentful Nikki repeated over and over again “They don’t work.” All the choke holes and body throws Nikki was taught were mere theoretical ploys. The attacker was simply too big and too strong, laughing at the girl’s by-the-book responses. Ultimately, it implies that males are just too physically powerful for females and there is precious little an attacked female can do to save herself without a gun, knife, or a fistful of car keys. The “They don’t work” mantra may be the most heartbreaking line I’ve heard on a local stage all season.
The good things in the play can be easily salvaged, but the script needs a narrative structure, instead of careening from moment to moment. The play ends with an unexpected phantasmagorical scene involving expressionistic light, frenzied dancing, and Brandi’s horrific meltdown. The scenes were a complete disconnect from the realistic action that preceded them and left me baffled. Also, the play runs an uninterrupted 90 minutes but feels stretched out in the final 15 minutes, with too many mini climaxes, any of which could have ended the play appropriately. Kara, maybe the strongest character on stage, plays a long concluding scene silently slumped on a sofa, wasted from a previous night’s partying. Kara is too interesting a figure to throw away in dramatic inertia.
The first rate cast commits itself totally to the script, physically and emotionally. The playbill lists the actors alphabetically and that’s fair. Each has his or her spotlight moments while preserving as much ensemble unity as the choppy script allows—Isa Arciniegas (Diana), Anna Crivelli (Brandi), Jayson Lee (Eggo), Ariana Mahallati (Mojden), Ryan McBride (Andy), Andrea San Miguel (Nikki), and Netta Walker (Kara).
Director Marti Lyons directed “Cambodian Rock Bank” earlier this season at Victory Gardens that I think remains the Chicagoland production of the year. For “How to Defend Yourself,” Lyons has succeeded in carving out effective moments of humor, tension, and pathos and one hopes she will have a voice in tightening and revising the current script (are the two male characters really necessary in what overwhelmingly is a storyline from a female perspective)? Christine Pascual designed the costumes, Paul Toben the lighting, and Thomas Dixon the sound. A trio of specialized directors shape the play’s physicality (Steph Paul movement director, Matt Hawkins fight director, and Rachel Flesher intimacy director).
In its current condition, ”How to Defend Yourself” hasn’t decided between whether it wants to be a cry of outrage against sexual violence in our society or a series of separate little dramas about the turbulent sex lives of its young characters. I left the theater convinced that the play contains the seeds of an important work on an important subject. But even in its current imperfect condition it can be recommended for its staging and for its vivid shards strong dramatic content scattered throughout the script.
“How to Defend Yourself” gets a rating of.
“How to Defend Yourself” runs through February 23 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $31 to $65. Call (773) 871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.