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‘How to Defend Yourself’ a powerful and smart deep dive into harrowing topic

Thoughtfully written by playwright Lilliana Padilla, the piece was developed as part of Victory Garden’s 2018 IGNITION Festival of New Plays.

Isa Arciniegas (left) and Ariana Mahallati are among the cast of “How to Defend Yourself” at Victory Gardens Theater.
Isa Arciniegas (left) and Ariana Mahallati are among the cast of “How to Defend Yourself” at Victory Gardens Theater.
Liz Lauren

Most of the high-profile discussions of #MeToo focus on litigating the harrowing details of the crime between perpetrator and victim. Few spend time with community members left to sift through the wreckage after law enforcement and medical professionals have done their parts. This quiet terrain is the subject matter of Victory Gardens Theater’s current production of “How To Defend Yourself.”

Thoughtfully written by playwright Lilliana Padilla, the piece was developed as part of Victory Garden’s 2018 IGNITION Festival of New Plays, and was also the recipient of the 2019 Yale Drama Series Prize. In an impromptu self-defense class, created and attended by college students in the wake of the brutal rape of a fellow sorority sister, each of the attendees learns basic self-defense techniques, and explores uncomfortable truths about assault, sex and safety.

One of the strengths of Padilla’s script and director Marti Lyons’ eye is delivering harrowing subject matter with a surprising amount of humor and levity. These are college-students after all, and the dialogue takes an honest and irreverent tone, perfectly capturing the mood, voice and habits of hardly mature twentysomethings. In a gym setting, Lyons directs scene transitions as pseudo-dance numbers that offer additional insight, while delivering welcome up-tempo palate cleansers.

Netta Walker (from left), Jason Lee, Anna Crivelli, Ariana Mahallati and Ryan McBride star in “How to Defend Yourself” at Victory Gardens Theater.
Netta Walker (from left), Jason Lee, Anna Crivelli, Ariana Mahallati and Ryan McBride star in “How to Defend Yourself” at Victory Gardens Theater.
Liz Lauren

Isa Arciniegas, a fearless actor not afraid of challenging subject material, after appearing in the delightfully disturbing “First Love Is the Revolution” at Steep theater last year, leads as Diana, an awkward young woman and wanna-be gun enthusiast, navigating the burden of the social expectation of college while still honoring her individuality. She enters the self-defense class with her slightly less-awkward best friend Modjeh, played by Ariana Mahallati, whose life is taking a sharply divergent path while grappling with the pressure to shed her cultural identity. Andrea San Miguel plays Nikki, a mousy nerd who seems the most broken, yet also the most whole, in the end possessing a brutal clarity that no one else has.

Leading the class are Brandi (Anna Crivelli) and Kara (Netta Walker), two sorority sisters who refreshingly step far outside of hoary stereotypes. Crivelli delivers a layered performance, her competence in self-defense inadvertently revealing a dark insecurity that threatens to spread like wildfire. Conversely, Walker’s character at first seems to be a complete mess, yet slowly reveals an intense level of confidence in her own desires that is too terrifying for her, her peers or society to fully grapple with in a young woman.

One of the many strengths of this piece is its treatment of male characters, who are often limited to villains in stories of sexual assault. “How To Defend Yourself” introduces Andy (Ryan McBride) and Eggo (Jayson Lee) as eager and flailing as a Great Dane — willing to help but becoming aware that their bodies have the potential to hurt. In addition to providing no shortage of comic relief, both Lee and McBride are outstanding in their portrayal of young men determined to do the right thing in an era where no playbook exists. Their roles in this piece serve as a sobering reminder of the demands that are placed on women to avoid assault, in contrast with the relative lack of responsibility that we place on young men.

While occasionally indulging in a corny line, “How To Defend Yourself” does many things well, and one of the most exquisite is the way it grapples with language — our struggle to find the words for concepts that don’t exist yet, outlining the boundaries of the taboo discussions that must be pushed past in order to make progress on intractable problems. Note the way the ensemble discusses — or does not discuss — the victim, who isn’t present, yet nevertheless hangs heavy as a reminder of the gulf between the conceptual and the practical in our discussions of sexual assault.

How does one prepare for the inevitable? The unstoppable? The script cleverly triangulates the character of Diana, presenting her with aggressive, violent-leaning characteristics such as a love of guns — characteristics which society would normally judge as maladjusted or inappropriate for a young woman. Yet when the specter of assault looms around every corner, it certainly seems like the appropriate reaction. When she says “I wish girls beat the s- - - out of each other more often,” realizing that women’s innocence and learned passivity is a life-threatening liability, we are inclined to agree with her.

Sheri Flanders is a freelance writer.