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THEATER REVIEW How to Defend Yourself
by Karen Topham

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Playwright: Liliana Padilla

At: Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: . Price: $25-50

Liliana Padilla's How to Defend Yourself focuses on a college campus as students try to deal with an extremely violent assault by two fraternity men on a sorority girl that has left her hospitalized.

Although all of the women on campus understand intuitively that they are never really "safe," this rape drives the point home in dramatic fashion and leads Brandi ( Anna Crivelli ) and her Zeta Chi sister Kara ( Netta Walker ) to start a women's self-defense class in a gym.

Unfortunately, despite the immediacy of the situation, only three young women come out to the class. Two of them, Diana ( Isa Arciniegas ) and Mojdeh ( Arianna Mahallati ) seem to be there as much to create an "in" with Zeta Chi to help their chances of being rushed as to learn anything. The other, a terminally shy young woman named Nikki ( Andrea San Miguel ), self-consciously wanders in late and clearly needs nurturing to help her to learn to assert herself. There are also two fraternity men, Andy ( Ryan McBride ) and the imaginatively named Eggo ( Jayson Lee ), whom Brandi invited to assist with the training.

Padilla's dialogue is wonderful: their language and cadences are perfect, as is their ability to differentiate among the younger women, older women, and the men in how they speak to each other; they even play with writing multiple simultaneous dialogues, as would occur when a class splits into pairs for an exercise. And director Marti Lyons feels like a perfect choice to stage it: she knows how to get the most out of the overlapping dialogue, how to use music and movement to help shape moments, how to help these actors build characters that are more complex than they appear to be. Most of all, though, she and Padilla are on the same page about the sheer confusion of sex in 2020.

No one seems to know just where the boundaries are. Though they all speak of "affirmative consent" and talking about what you desire, there are many indications of just how confounding that can be for both sexes. The mixed signals they all give and receive make everything about sex a muddle in which everyone is constantly on the lookout for perfect clarity they will not find.

Young people today are coming of age in a world in which sexual politics are more perplexing than ever but sex itself is commonplace. ( Even shy Nikki talks about how she gave a guy a blowjob in a lavatory at a gas station. ) And Padilla's play, despite its title, acknowledges that, perhaps, there is no surefire way to defend yourself ( short of Diana's gun ). You can learn techniques and practice as much as possible, but disengaging yourself from a partner in a gym will never be the same as doing it in the real world with a man who is bigger than you and wants to harm you. Nothing is certain except that kids will push boundaries ... even when they know better.

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