Monday, February 03, 2020

A Tough Subject: All Too Timely 'How to Defend Yourself' Lacks Proper Punch -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

How to Defend Yourself
a recent play by Liliana Padilla
directed by Marti Lyons
Victory Gardens Theatre
at the Biograph, Chicago 
Thru February 23

Given the serious subject matter of How to Defend Yourself--which deals with co-eds struggling with the rape of a friend on campus--I really wish I could convey that I found it truly insightful and thought-provoking.

Or at least quite informative and highly entertaining.

I certainly respect playwright Liliana Padilla--who identifies herself in the program as a survivor of sexual assault--for writing about a topic she regrettably knows all too well.

And simply as a human being who supports the #MeToo movement and cringes at statistics suggesting only 5 in 1000 rapes see the perpetrator properly punished, it was worthwhile just to take in Padilla's play at Victory Gardens, directed by Marti Lyons, who has done much fine work.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
But with due respect to the intent and effort, including solid work by the 7-person cast, How to Defend Yourself did not much illuminate, engage or move me.

I do not need to belabor what I found problematic, especially as there was something intangible about the overall tonality that felt off, for me.

If others see it differently, and take much away, that would be great, for the topic is all too--yet seemingly always--timely.

Prior what transpires onstage, at an unnamed college a student named Susanna has been raped --she is not a character--inspiring her sorority sisters, Brandi (Anna Crivelli) and Kara (Netta Walker), to conduct a self-defense class.

Attending are a pair of friends, Diana (Isa Arciniegas) and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati)--who open the play with some snappy, sassy dialogue--and the rather bashful Nikki (Andrea San Miguel). Not that it's super important, but none of these women seem to be part of the college's Greek system.

But two guys who show up to help with the class--Andy (Ryan McBride) and Eggo (Jayson Lee)--are members of the fraternity where the rape occurred.

And as I imagine is Padilla's intent, they seem to pronounce empathy with the #MeToo movement with too much bluster to feel fully genuine.

A substantive amount of How to Defend Yourself takes place within the defense class, but not in a way that is actionable, nor reflecting all that acutely on (the) sexual assault or even self-protection.

And while we do come to know each of the characters--with considerable talk about sex and hints of insecurities and even repression--there just seem to be many threads that don't really connect or congeal.

All of the acting is solid, with Arciniegas and Mahallati being particularly good, and both Padilla and Lyons--along with the ostensible subject matter--merit enough deference for me to leave it there. 

Victory Gardens Theatre regularly does fine work, and in presenting How to Defend Yourself in a partnership with Actors Theatre of Louisville, longtime VGT Artistic Director and others clearly saw something that didn't resonate with me.

In his program notes, Yew calls it "a witty and essential play," and though I don't concur, I won't argue against anyone seeing it...or even finding it fantastic.

Undeniably, challenging topics--including rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and injustices that women face--should be part of everyone's purview.

And in that way, How to Defend Yourself is eminently defensible.

But from a theatrical standpoint, I just thought there were too many weak spots. 

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

I guess the 2.5 stars are for the effort.