Chicago Reviews

"How to Defend Yourself" proves that doing so is easier said than done in this complex sexual age

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Liz Lauren.

It’s easy to see the very real pain behind Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself, now playing at Victory Gardens Theatre. The playwright says in a program note, “I honestly just wanted the play to keep company with my 17-year-old self, who felt so alone in the aftermath of assault.” Mustering sympathy (or empathy) for Padilla and other victims of our shameful national epidemic of sexual violence takes no effort at all. What is more difficult is realizing how hard it is to do anything about it. 

Padilla’s play focuses on a college campus early in the school year as students try to deal with an extremely violent assault by two fraternity men on a sorority girl that has left her hospitalized. Though all of the women on campus understand intuitively that they are never really “safe,” this rape drives the point home in dramatic fashion and leads Brandi (Anna Crivelli), the president of Zeta Chi and a good friend of the victim, to start a women’s self-defense class in a gym that set designer Yu Shibagaki has perfectly rendered down to scuff marks on the floor. Brandi has a black belt in karate, so she feels qualified to lead the class, and she recruits her friend and sorority sister Kara (Netta Walker) to join her and help get the word out. 

Unfortunately, despite the immediacy of the situation, only three young women come out to the class. Two of them, Diana (Isa Arciniegas) and Mojdeh (Arianna Mahallati) seem to be there as much to create an “in” with Zeta Chi to help their chances of being rushed as to learn anything. The other, a terminally shy young woman named Nikki (Andrea San Miguel), self-consciously wanders in late and clearly needs nurturing to help her to learn to assert herself. There are also two fraternity men, Andy (Ryan McBride) and the imaginatively named Eggo (Jayson Lee), whom Brandi invited to assist with the training. 

Padilla is a whiz at creating realistic dialogue: their language and cadences are perfect, as is their ability to differentiate among the younger women, older women, and the men in how they speak to each other; they even play with writing multiple simultaneous dialogues, as would occur when a class splits into pairs for an exercise. And they also know how to write memorable stage directions. At one point, Nikki raises her hand to volunteer for something and then stares at the hand, shocked at what she’s just done. It’s a great moment. The play is, overall, a clever piece of writing that ultimately shows just how insecure pretty much all of these characters are, especially on the topic of sex (which they talk about almost constantly). And director Marti Lyons feels like a perfect choice to stage it: she knows how to get the most out of the overlapping dialogue, how to use music and movement to help shape moments, how to help these actors build characters that are more complex than they appear to be. (All of the performances, especially the internalized pain Crivelli brings to her character, are wonderful.) Most of all, though, she and Padilla are on the same page about the sheer confusion of sex in 2020.

No one seems to know just where the boundaries are. Though they all speak of “affirmative consent” and talking about what you desire, there are many indications of just how confounding that can be. Kara, for example, openly acknowledges that she doesn’t like it when a man is gentle and considerate: “If Todd was like, “how do you want to feel?” I’d be like (1) gross (2) are you a woman? (3) I don’t know.” She goes on to say that what she desires is rough sex: “I want a man who just takes me, uses me, tosses me on a bed, makes me a little animal.” To Brandi, that sounds like abuse: “It sounds like what happened to Susanna.” (Walker, by the way, is absolutely riveting in this sequence as Kara’s defiant and fairly careless attitude upstages Brandi’s caution.)

The men, too, express confusion. Though Andy says that he’s up for “consensual whatever,” Eggo reminds them all just how hard it can be to be clear about intentions: “I totally have sex. And half the women are like, ‘Hit me, baby, please hit me.’ And I’m like ‘Oooo, are you sure? Can I get you asking on tape? On a contract?” The mixed signals they all give and receive make everything about sex a muddle. Andy, who repeatedly articulates his understanding of the need for consent and respect in a sexual encounter, also says that “sex is a shadow world….gladiator shit…if sex is too clean, too polite, too planned, it kinda defeats the purpose.” Meanwhile, Eggo is concerned about landing in jail if he gets the signals wrong, and we even witness a mix-up of signals when Diana, mistaking Mojdeh’s need for attention for something else, kisses her best friend. 

This bisexuality, though, is not explored anywhere, nor does it seem to be all that significant to the plot or to the character. The same can be said about Diana’s gun obsession and all of the side conversations about wanting to pledge the sorority. What is made clear is that three of these people have reasons to partially blame themselves for the attack on Susanna, and the fact that none of them could reasonably have predicted what would happen does not mitigate their emotions. What also is clear is that, though the rape creates a cloud that hangs over them, it doesn’t actually alter the way they handle the world. Mojdeh, for example, still puts on a slinky dress for a first date, and Brandi comments positively about how it shows off “clavicles and cleavage.” And Mojdeh also refuses to share her location with Diana, even when she expresses concern.

Young people today are coming of age in a world in which sexual politics are more perplexing than ever but sex itself is commonplace. (Even shy Nikki talks about how she gave a guy a blowjob in a lavatory at a gas station.) They are far more open and communicative about it than previous generations, but it’s still a kind of mystery. And Padilla’s play, despite its title, acknowledges that, perhaps, there is no surefire way to defend yourself (short of Diana’s gun). You can learn techniques and practice as much as possible, but disengaging yourself from a partner in a gym will never be the same as doing it in the real world with a man who is bigger than you and wants to harm you. A coda showing several different parties at various ages—a riotous kegger, a bunch of uncomfortable middle school kids playing “spin the bottle,” even the tenuous gender-separated activity of an early dance—shows that, though we are groomed for sexual exploration from childhood, ultimately there are no simple answers about anything, and nothing is certain except that kids will push boundaries…even when they know better.

How to Defend Yourself is now playing at the Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, until Feb 23. The show runs approximately 100 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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