How To Defend Yourself Punches Strong at NYTW

Sex that is a surprise, and sex that is an assault. That is the key, and one of the many fascinating paradoxes built in and intertwined within one well-crafted interaction. It gives forth a wealth of complex formulations by playwright Liliana Padilla (TWITCH) that jab punches provocatively in the brilliantly captivating new play, How To Defend Yourself now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop. The writing keeps revolving out nuggets of nuanced reactions slowly but surely, as we meet and engage with a bunch of college students trying to comprehend the terribly upsetting slice of violence that just happened very close to them all. This isn’t one of those moments of reactions that come with a certain distance between, but something that each one of these characters is one handshake or smile away from a savage frathouse rape that landed one sorority girl in the hospital and two men in jail, and even though we never actually meet the three students involved with the rape and assault, each one of Padilla’s characters knows all that are involved. The classroom where we find ourselves reverberates with the friction and the intensity of all that fury in all corners as these women (and two men) come together to try to navigate their response and their physical safety, while also trying to make personal choices about their bodies and souls that weave themselves in and out.

Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, and Amaya Braganza in NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself. Photo by Joan Marcus

Co-directed with intensity under a hoodie cloak of casualness by the team of Rachel Chavkin (Broadway’s Hadestown), the playwright Padilla, and Steph Paul (LCT’s Becky Nurse of Salem), the engagement begins with two young women trying to understand where they are in their worlds, and how to move forward. The “fiction of safety” is what is being unpacked in their intimate interaction, navigating social acceptance and sexual attraction, within the constructs of the same sorority as this unseen student who was assaulted. Personal attraction and sexual liberation find a quiet sense of space and union with the two, played beautifully by Gabriela Ortega (B Street’s Dance Nation), and Ariana Mahallati (Pixar’s “Win or Lose“), as the duo named Diana and Mojdeh. Diana’s dynamic bravado and Nikki’s complex insecurity shift and float out in a way that is linked to the meticulous language they are given by the playwright. It resonates, both emotionally, and authentically, leading them to an earthy place to shed their baggage, while also connecting in a way that is both funny and endearing.

Gabriela Ortega and Ariana Mahallati in NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself. Photo by Joan Marcus

He had a fuckin’ gun,” is the warrior focus for these women as they try to comprehend what went down not too long ago, and it still scratches at their sense of safety and security. It feels so intimate and meaningful, until the energy shifts as two sorority sisters enter exuding an almost comical level of confidence and clarity. They are here to teach defense, they proclaim, with Brandi, played meticulously by Talia Ryder (Broadway’s Matilda), taking the strong lead in the lessons, and Kara, played with a different kind of confidence bordering on nonchalance by Sarah Marie Rodriguez (Netflix’s “Manifest“), standing by her side to assist. The alliance feels solid, until it isn’t, which doesn’t surprise as it is wrapped up in a sorority-bound friendship that has a few other obstacles just waiting to be unwrapped and thrown down.

But the piece doesn’t really find its legs until the astounding Amaya Braganza (Broadway’s Annie), as the awkward frightened Nikki, comes shuffling into the room filled with need and anxiety. She reverberates everything that someone might feel after what just happened, as well as anyone who feels at odds with the world they are trying to exist in. She takes her place, tentatively, wondering if she can put her faith in these women, before two over-emphasizing frat guys, perfectly embodied by Sebastian Delascasas (“Last Straw“) and Jayson Lee (First Floor’s Hooded), come into the room. They say that they are here to also learn, but is it something more complex? They know, in a way, especially Delascasas’s character that they are the embodiment of what is to be feared, but they also want to believe they are participating in the solution, and to help us all feel the point a bit deeper.

 The company of NYTW’s How to Defend Yourself. Photo by Joan Marcus

The dialogue effortlessly and brilliantly spins out, over days and moments of connection in a classroom designed with realistic precision by You-Shin Chen (MCC/Soho Rep’s Wolf Play), with perfectly detailed costuming by Izurni Inaba (Indiana Rep’s Clue), exact lighting by Stacey Derosier (ATC’s Cornelia Street), and a clear, attuned sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (Broadway’s Dana H.), especially when the walls come tumbling down. The language resonates and drives the piece forward through all the twists and turns of this fascinating set-up. To learn how to fight back, and to find some sense of understanding about their own safety in this complicated framework is where the goal-stated lives, but it is in the characters’ engagement with one another around who they appear to be and who they really are where the play really taps into its potential.

Progressive warriors and defenders; this is where they are all trying to position themselves, unpacking problematic ideals around fully formulated new values and concepts. The two young men try, with all their might to showcase care and alignment with the women, without ever slipping too far out of reality. We don’t quite know what to think of Delascasas’s jock dude who says things like, “We do not get down with that rape s—. Full stop” while also reacting like a full-on frat guy oblivious of being a part of another frat party so soon after the assault. Lee’s Eggo gives us another window to look through, as he, most authentically, is confused and unnerved by the positions taken by the women he has dated. “What’s the difference between sex that is a surprise, and assault? Cus I don’t want to be the surprise that winds up in jail,” he most brilliantly questions.

Consent is unpacked with good intentions, but these seven college kids don’t seem to know how to navigate it in the real world, where even warrior Diana doesn’t really know what ‘yes’ and ‘no’ really fully stand for in her own rational sexual mind, let alone in the situational world she is trying so hard to dive into and survive. The scenes play out strong, with undercurrents cutting the unity apart. How To Defend Yourself boldly digs in, punching forth ideas of conflictual engagement, attraction, and self-preservation, while offering up not clear concise conclusions. The ending feels a bit haphazard and without weight, not exactly the knockdown punch I was hoping for, but overall, the play and the performances find some solidarity in their strong voices. Even if the world at large is failing to listen all that much to what they are trying to say. So make sure your “No” is as loud and forceful as Padilla’s, cause maybe then they will be heard and things might find a way to change.

Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza, Sebastian Delascasas and Gabriela Ortega in NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself. Photo by Joan Marcus

The wonderful network of community partners for How To Defend Yourself includes: Speak About ItThe Center for Anti-Violence EducationBreaking the Binary TheatreCrime Victims Treatment Center, and The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.

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