Before she began high school last fall my 14-year-old daughter, who takes the New York subway to and from Manhattan, enrolled in a self-defense class. Safety tips aside I trust it wasn’t anything like the one depicted in How to Defend Yourself, which is geared toward college students, and has the sort of “adult situations and language” that would make audiences considerably older blush. The woman seated next to me got up and left the intermissionless play during one particularly intense scene, never to return. Her loss, as this frank, uninhibited, and trenchant show, by Liliana Padilla, is one of the season’s best, and arrives Off Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop after acclaimed productions in Louisville, KY, and Chicago. 

Transpiring within a homely campus gym the play introduces us to Brandi (Talia Ryder) and Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez), who are holding a self-defense class they’ve put together. What prompted them, we learn, is the assault and rape of a fellow sorority sister by two frat boys. The first students to arrive are the brash Diana (Gabriela Ortega) and the softer Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati). Later comes Nicollette (Amaya Braganza) and two frat guys, Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) and Eggo (Jayson Lee). The two young men, there to learn and put this shared experience with their peers into their “man boxes” for future reference, change the all-female dynamic, but one of Padilla’s strengths as a writer is that no character is ever static. Diana presents herself as a dynamic Fight Club adherent, ready to kick ass or, better, gun down whoever’s in her way; Mojdeh, looking to impress her instructors to gain admission to their sorority, is a bit more calculating than she appears; and Nicollette is looking to build a new, more confident self (aka “Nikki”) after an unpleasant encounter. Brandi and Kara, who seem the best of friends in this empowerment venture, are quietly riven over the murky circumstances surrounding their sister’s assault. Andy and Eggo, meanwhile, strive to be sensitive, but are subject to their desires and fantasies. In scenes that will shock some ears the girls and the guys let it all hang out regarding sex–these brazen declarations are, however, false fronts, self-protective displays of bravado concealing deeper fears and insecurities. It’ll take more than kicks and flips to break everyone down, physically and psychologically.

I loved the language of this play, a blend of raunch, contemporary jargon, and vulnerability that sounds like something college students might say. The direction, credited to Padilla, Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown), and Steph Paul, shows great care; every character, all played to uncomfortably human imperfection, is given a voice and looked after as they go off on different emotional journeys. (This is not a “heroes and villains” piece, and the effects of porn and the internet on developing sexual psyches are on the sideline.) Paul is also credited as movement director, with Rocío Mendez the fight director and Ann James the intimacy coordinator and sensitivity specialist; I’m not sure who did what at different points in the show, but their work is seamless, and the training scenes, accompanied by Stacey Derosier’s forceful lighting, act as tightly choreographed interludes while advancing the storyline. (The very dressed-down set and costumes are the work of You-Shin Chen and Izumi Inaba, respectively.)

How to Defend Yourself, a most naturalistic piece, surprises with an abstracted ending that explores the roots of our sexual roleplaying, the “man and woman boxes” we’re put into at an early age and need to bust loose from. I wonder if the woman seated next to me saw something in the play that she didn’t want to confront–if she had stayed, she might have found something to take solace in.

About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

View All Articles