‘How to Defend Yourself’ at New York Theatre Workshop
In this decade of sexual extremes on a continuum from paranoia, political correctness, libertine licentiousness, the billion dollar pornography industry and casual permissiveness, one in four women is violated, sexually assaulted or physically/emotionally abused. As a strategic defense #metoo has been appropriately employed culturally, but it also has been wrongfully magnified as a double-edged sword of vengeance. In Liliana Padilla’s play How to Defend Yourself currently at New York Theatre Workshop, following a successful 2020 run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, Padilla confronts important issues about personal safety (emotional and physical). Incisively co-directed by the exceptional Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla and Steph Paul, the hybrid comedy drama considers safety, consent and the litigated definitions of rape and harassment, which shift based upon geographical location, accuser and victim.
With the setting as a torpid and tumultuous college campus when individuals are beginning to define their goals, dreams and intentions, sexuality and choices remain fluid. A decision to be with someone can lead to devastation, especially around stimulants, alcohol and drugs at a testosterone-fueled frat party, where young women are pressured to compromise themselves. At the top of the play we are introduced to women in a self-defense class started by college junior Brandi (Talia Ryder). The confident, black belt with Social Media videos of herself disarming a bully with a gun, is a self-appointed, self-defense instructor, who decides to teach students the ways to protect themselves, after sorority sister Susannah is raped and hospitalized. The assault happened at a frat party with.
Much of the enjoyment of Padilla’s play is becoming acquainted with the buoyant women and two young men in the class. They reveal their humorous attitudes as they attempt to navigate a culture whose roiling currents are being defined from moment to moment, dislocating both men and women who may be easily overcome by intimate circumstances which they assume they have control over but don’t. Brandi, whose self-assurance, determination to do good and organized, talented, physical skills, not only looks dancer fit, but is also lovely. Admired and accepted by her peers, she is a member of a hot sorority and has the cache to hold self-defense sessions, which attract a few neophytes who are there to learn self-defense, and some for other reasons.
Brandi runs her sessions tightly with precision. She expects her peers to evolve toward her confidence level, so they understand that “anything can be used as a weapon,” and primarily, their own bodies are weapons. Along with her, Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez), who joins her BFF for moral support and fun, but lacks Brandi’s skill set, assists Brandi with chatter and chalkboard drawings in the college gym space (finely designed by You-Shin Chen) where Brandi holds classes.
Two students, who drift in anxious to get started, arrive before Brandi. We learn that freshman Diana is obsessed about defending herself against guns, and her BFF Mojdeh follows fast in her orbit. Humorous and sociable Diana ((Gabriela Ortega at the top of her game) and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) are primarily there to become closer to Brandi who is a Zeta Chi, the sorority they would both like to rush. It escapes them that the group think atmosphere of sororities and fraternities are precisely the communities that can be toxic and abusive. However, Mojdeh craves to be identified with being “cool” and seeks the hot, popular individuals to ride their coattails to achieve acceptance as the fastest way to self-love. For her part Diana appears to be self-content, and is humorous in how she fetishizes guns to the point where by the the end of the play, she indulges in her passion.
The last young woman to join Brandi’s sessions is Nikki (Amaya Braganza) whose entrance provokes laughter because she appears super shy, hesitant and awkward. Throughout, she is mysterious and apparently reticent, until the conversation opens up and she admits she gave a “blow job” to a guy in a gasoline station. When Brandi and Kara attempt to kindly excuse her humiliating low status behavior as a mistake, she clearly states that she was fine with it and it was her idea. Whether she is lying or fronting is difficult to surmise. Hiding behind “it’s OK” is oftentimes the default response because it is too messy to get into who is responsible, who is to blame and what does being forced mean.
Kara indirectly insults her by stating that she has done such things, too, as mistakes. Nikki is nonplussed. Interestingly, Padilla’s characters veer off topic into personal discussions about what touching makes them uncomfortable and boundaries.
The play reveals that the idea of self-defense encompasses more than just a physical way of being. But young men and women are at sea with regard to “growing up” with their sexual identity that is forced upon them by the culture and their friends. Oftentimes, as Eggo suggests, they are clueless about what is the right or wrong way to conduct themselves, have relationships and fall in love during which sexuality isn’t necessarily the main ingredient that holds people together.
To add substance to the mix, Padilla includes the male perspective, having Brandi invite two fraternity brothers, Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) and Eggo (Jayson Lee). They are “down” with #metoo and are supportive of Susannah during her recuperation and the criminal charges against the fraternity brother who assaulted her. To distinguish themselves from the “sexual abuser types” roaming their campus, Andy and Eggo hysterically ply their sanctimonious “we support women” BS, the moment they enter the room and introduce themselves. Especially since their frat “bro” committed a crime which everyone is apprised of in the fraternities and sororities on campus, they are “running scared” that any behavior can be interpreted as predatory. Their loud moralistic approach toward women is hysterical and we expect they will marching in the next women’s protest to encourage female empowerment.
Padilla’s themes are not lost on us. Sexualized images and behaviors, part of the landscape of American culture in the entertainment industry and fashion industry were shattered by #metoo. The nascent revolution that sprang up after the Harvey Weinstein debacle shuttered a billion dollar company and gave pseudo power to women for a time, only in the parts of the country which are not Republican and are “woke.” For everywhere else, the men act as they please and the women go along with it, especially if they are proving they are not “socialist lefties.” In the play, the characters are diverse: three persons of color, a Mexican-American, an Iranian-American and two whites. They are stuck with having to deal with “woke” culture. Vitally, the discussion in the middle of the play about what consent means and the question about having to always check with a partner about boundaries, Kara blows it up with her suggestion that she finds there is nothing wrong with wanting S and M sex, though Brandi calls her out for being inappropriate.
Clearly, Kara has issues with alcohol and wanting to be hurt which hints at subterranean troubles that are never revealed. We note them when she doesn’t join in the physical sessions because she got “wasted” the previous evening. On the other hand she isn’t embarrassed about sharing that she enjoys rough sex, getting off on the shock value of telling others.
The most interesting segments of the production are the self-defense moves that Brandi teaches (well choreographed by Steph Paul, movement director) and the physical fight routines they accomplish together (at the guidance of Rocio Mendez). Late in the play there is a fight that breaks out between Diana and Kara that is well staged. The fight exemplifies that ego, charm and pride are always a competitive force. Between these two women, there is almost an intuitive impulse to dislike each other which eventually dissipates after Diana smashes Kara in the face.
The staging for these scenes works seamlessly and is powerful and exciting to watch as the movement is pitched to music which pumps up the characters and reveals they are gaining confidence about themselves. Additionally, when Brandi suggests they pair off to practice techniques, for example how to break an attacker’s wrist grip, the results are simultaneously wrought and the overlapping dialogue and action between the pairs makes for fascinating comparisons.
There are surprising turns throughout. Diana and Mojdeh discover things about each other that set their relationship on a different path so that they can’t be close anymore. Kara and Brandi have a disagreement about Susannah, and Andy reveals a secret to Eggo that he has been harboring since the attack on Susannah, that upsets them both. When Andy asks what he should do, Eggo is at a loss about what to tell him. Finally, after a number of sessions where Brandi’s “students” have made progress and she feels she has made inroads into making them feel safer, Nikki upends her assumptions and disturbs everyone with an event that she discusses happened to her.
In the conclusion which moves through flashbacks in stages of adolescence back to the age of innocence, we see the individuals at three parties during their teen years which move in reverse to a birthday party when they were in elementary school. The parties reveal the wildness from the drinking and sexual exploration when they were in high school back to the innocent days in elementary school. For the rapid set changes You-Shin Chen, Stacey Derosier lighting designer, Izumi Inaba costume design and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design create a frenetic party atmosphere. And the tableau at the end reveals that the progression of their identities has sprung from love, security, family and well being. One might think that these create an assured line of defense to thwart any attack that might ever happen.
However, Padillia posits, security is never guaranteed. Though we may use our bodies as weapons, random and not so random acts of violence happen in a world of violence, where Diana most probably will arm herself with a licensed gun to answer it.
Co-directors Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla & Steph Paul are responsible for the strengths of the production: its staging and thematic resonance. Their vision about the questions the play raises leaves us with even more questions and no clear answers. The actors are uniformly excellent and the physicality and staging of the various defense sessions make one want to get up and join the cast to try out all the moves.
This is an entertaining, humorous show with themes to give us pause and fine execution by the creatives. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.nytw.org/show/how-to-defend-yourself/tickets/