Review: How to Defend Yourself at Victory Gardens Falls Short in Addressing an Important Topic

Walker, Lee. Crivelli. Mahallati and McBride. Photo by Liz Lauren. How to Defend Yourself by Liliana Padilla takes an important topic—how women can defend themselves in a rape culture—and treats it with some sincerity about woman using their bodies to fend off attackers and men being allies. But it also adds a layer of  flippancy in the way this group of students talks about sex and desire and how seriously they seem to take the actual defense tactics. Padilla’s play is on stage at Victory Gardens Theater, directed by Marti Lyons, in a co-world premiere with Actors Theatre of Louisville. The entire story plays out in a realistic college gym (design by Yu Shibegaki), complete with mats, bleachers, punching bag and championship banners, where seven students participate in a self-defense workshop for women. Brandi (Anna Crivelli), who has a black belt in karate, decides there’s a need for a women’s self-defense workshop after Susannah, a sorority sister, is brutally attacked and raped by two men; she’s still hospitalized. The first two women to arrive are Diana (Isa Arciniegas, who played a boxer in Wolf Play at Gift Theatre, gets to use her boxing chops again here) and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati), who is eager to lose her virginity. Diana loves guns for reasons never clear. Both of them seem to think the workshop will give them a connection with the sorority, Zeta Chi, which they hope to pledge. Brandi arrives with Kara (Netta Walker), who is co-host. Soon Brandi has them chanting “I am a fighter. I am a fighter. I am a fighter.” Painfully shy Nikki (Andrea San Miguel) sneaks in, afraid to be seen. Two guys arrive to work with them on self-defense and let the women know they are allies. Andy (Ryan McBride) really seems to want to help and Eggo (Jayson Lee) is still getting used to the new world of sexual relationships. Crivelli, Mahallati, San Miguel, Arciniegas. Photo by Liz Lauren. The workshop participants go through various confrontational and defense exercises over several workshop scenes. The students share sexual experiences of their childhood, teen and recent years. Eggo tells about a woman who said he couldn’t satisfy her but liked a man who made sex feel like a surprise. And Eggo says, “Now riddle me this: what’s the difference between sex that is a SURPRISE and assault? Cuz I don’t want to be a surprise that winds up in jail.” Later, when Andy and Eggo are alone, Andy advises, “My dad said it’s important to show remorse but not guilt. Like ‘I’m sorry I made you feel that way’ is different than ‘I’m sorry for x.’ Legally.” The acting and directing in How to Defend Yourself are certainly competent. The play itself is the problem. There’s really no plot and not much happens in How to Defend Yourself. There’s a sweet and inexplicable ending and many loose ends. Diana’s obsession with guns. Mojdeh’s decision to wear a slinky dress that Brandi says shows “her clavicles AND cleavage” for a first date and then lying about what happens. Some bisexuality that’s never followed up on. No backstory on Nikki’s shyness and why she suddenly breaks out of it. The playwright gets props for addressing an important subject but the play needs some dramatic structure and a little character development. Lighting design is by Paul Toben and sound by Thomas Dixon. Steph Paul is movement director with Matt Hawkins as fight director. Costumes are by Christine Pascual. How to Defend Yourself continues at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., through February 23. Tickets are $31-$65 for performances Tuesday-Sunday, with 3pm shows on both weekend days. Running time is 100 minutes with no intermission.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.