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How to Defend Yourself

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 13, 2023

Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder,
Gabriela Ortega, Amaya Braganza

Photo by Joan Marcus
Whew, this one really needed an intimacy coordinator. Liliana Padilla's How to Defend Yourself, at New York Theatre Workshop, is mostly about its titular topic, as reflected through the uneasy #MeToo present. But it explores many cultural touchstones currently complicating gender identity and relations, and in doing so may make many in the audience uncomfortable at times (I know I was). The production, co-directed by Padilla, Rachel Chavkin, and Steph Paul, is exuberantly physical, with both intimate and violent moments that illustrate how the sexes coexist these days and how fraught those relations can be. How to Defend Yourself is messy and sometimes feels less like a drama than a polemic, but people are going to be talking about it, and maybe that talk will wise some of them up.

Padilla means to be prosaic and straightforward, but from the moment Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) and Diana (Gabriela Ortega) enter You-Shin Chen's unshowy gym set, there's a certain theatrical artifice at work. Susannah, a girl they know, is in the hospital after being raped, and they're there for lessons in, yes, how to defend yourself. The gun-obsessed Diana punctuates her speech with "Bam," describing to Mojdeh an encounter she witnessed where the woman overcame her tormentor. The "bam"s just don't feel natural. They're college-age, both of them, and so's their soon-to-arrive instructor, Brandi (Talia Ryder); she's earnest and more confident than she ought to be. "Hi, warriors!," she greets them.

The other participants straggle in. Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez) is Brandi's bestie, a sorority sister whose "use me!" sexual proclivities are troublesomely at odds with the zeitgeist. Nikki (Amaya Braganza) is so timid at first that you just know she's going to wind up emboldened. Then, surprisingly, in pop a couple of guys who want to help out. Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) is a big-man-on-campus athlete and frat bro who speaks of getting these #MeToo issues into the "Man Box," though we wonder at times how sincere he is. Eggo (Jayson Lee), at first saying little, eventually has a terrific speech about the hazy line where playful flirting tips over into consent, or not: "Now, riddle me this, what's the difference between sex that is a 'surprise' and assault?," he asks. "Cuz I don't want to be the surprise that winds up in jail."

Much of the 100 minutes is just what the title says, a self-defense course, and vulnerable young people may pick up some useful pointers. Some of it is discomfiting: sexual fantasies, updates from the hospital where Susannah is recovering, Mojdeh recounting a date with the studly boy she's been obsessing about that didn't go well. Padilla hasn't worked everything out ideally: Friends have conversations in front of others that in real life they'd keep to themselves, and scenes end with music and lighting changes signifying I don't know what. Eggo has a big, applause-getting dance that happens because, well, Lee can dance, and I guess Padilla, Chavkin, and Paul wanted us to see him dance. It hasn't anything to do with anything else.

The language is frank even by current theatrical standards, and so's the action: defense exercises that also simulate coupling (Ann James did the intimacy coordination) and some convincingly landed punches (Rocio Mendez is fight director). Nikki does an escape-from-unwanted-intimacy exercise–"buck, capture, break, roll!"–so well that it earned Braganza a hand.

Sexually active young couples may exit with a lot to talk about. How can men really know what women are going through? How much emotion should be checked in the heat of passion, if any? How do these sensitive topics get discussed, and does discussing them reduce that heat? Should it? Like that.

Ortega's high-spirited Diana might be the most likable presence onstage, even with her I-love-firearms enthusiasm. Brandi, in the officious person of Ryder, is something of a scold, and the comeuppance she gets near the finale doesn't ring true; aren't the others overreacting? And Padilla's attempted coup de theatre at the end doesn't work: Are these the same people, and if so why are they together, and what year is this? (The script says four years ago, but there's no way of knowing that, and even that doesn't compute, based on what we've seen up to now.) The other actors are fine, and so are Izumi Inaba's this-is-what-the-kids-wear-today costumes.

I didn't exactly enjoy How to Defend Yourself, and Padilla might have striven harder to define their characters (How much should we trust Andy? How much is Brandi in it to help others, and how much for peer approval? How many sexualities does Diana have?) and explain that ending more clearly. But I don't think a tidy narrative is what they were really after. They want to tap our consciousnesses to put a vital, difficult topic onstage and encourage us to think about and talk about it, not to pussyfoot around it. That they've accomplished.

How to Defend Yourself
Through April 2, 2023
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., New York NY
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