(Warning: this review contains a frank discussion of sexual violence.)
The Humana Festival of New American Plays often presents audiences with the opportunity to do difficult work. Sure, the audiences also see difficult work, but with pretty solid regularity, this collection of plays has one or two offerings that basically stand up, stare the audience down and say: “You. Go do the work now.”
Before we get to that difficult work, know that Lily Padilla’s “How to Defend Yourself” is hilarious. It is on one level a weird inverse mirror of comedies like “Animal House,” “American Pie” or whatever goofy, sex-filled college-daze romp is currently cool with the kids.
“How to Defend Yourself” has plenty of gross-out humor, talk about getting lucky and college kids flirting with each other shamelessly, all set against the backdrop of Greek Life, the setting for so many of our culture’s coming-of-age movies.
But instead of a standard jumping-off point for a teen sex romp, the action of this play is set in motion by an unseen though much-discussed gang rape of a sorority girl named Suzannah, perpetrated by two frat boys.
That rape prompts one of Suzannah’s “sisters,” Brandi (Anna Crivelli), to offer a series of free self-defense classes in a university gym.
Crivelli’s Brandi is an erstwhile leader who has no idea where she is going, and Crivelli turns in a very human, brittle and sometimes harsh performance that is well-suited to her character’s journey.
Another sorority sister, Kara (Abby Leigh Huffstetler), comes along for the ride. The class draws in Diana (Gabriela Ortega), Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) and Nikki (Molly Adea). Eventually, they are joined by Andy (David Ball) and Eggo (Jonathan Moises Olivares), friends of Brandi who serve as the attack dummies in much of the self-defense training.
“How to Defend Yourself” isn’t content with a Manichean view of sexual assaults with easy-to-spot monsters. Instead, as soon as they have brought all the characters onto the stage, Padilla begins to twist conventions and present a much more complicated, compelling and ultimately deeply important play.
Take Eggo, the bashful friend of the brash handsome dude type, Andy.
Eggo’s bashful best friend archetype is quickly established and just as quickly detonated; Eggo has some pretty gross, rage-y, complicated and rape-culture-affirming views on women. He’s a dude you would yell at on Facebook. But Padilla doesn’t let him become a bad guy.
He remains endearing. This is bolstered by a great performance from Olivares, whose Eggo is nigh unrecognizable from Briggs, the groundskeeper he played in Actors Theatre’s “Dracula.”
As the action plays out, we see all the characters reveal some ugly things, or at the very least very ugly feelings, often centered around shame and desire. Padilla lets the audience stew in that shame, which is always accompanied by complicity, either directly or indirectly, in the assault that looms over all the action.
The story is so rich and challenging thematically that the imaginative way Padilla plays with structural and theatrical conventions is easy to overlook in the moment.
The script uses movement and music throughout. Whether it’s a highly stylized kickboxing sequence or a character who sneaks into the gym early to have a private and uninhibited moment of dance, movement director Steph Paul succeeds in creating pieces that are almost always set in reality, though it is heightened and highly stylized.
The heightened reality, thumping bass and flashing lights (courtesy of the lighting designer Heather Gilbert) successfully pulls the audience into a partying mood that is at odds with the seriousness of the action.
This cognitive backhand is a physically and palpably reinforcing theme in the play. Director Marti Lyons blends staging, movement and music together with an even hand.
The self-defense class has its share of arm locks, quick punches and disarming techniques, but it also addresses consent. This is where the play gets even trickier and more uncomfortable.
To single out a particular instance, Kara talks about not wanting to give consent, preferring to be taken forcefully. Rape fantasies are not at all uncommon for women and femmes to have, but in this context, from a less adept writer, it could read as an apologist defense.
Huffstetler narrates her fantasy forcefully to life in a way that would maybe be hot under different circumstances, but here is pretty nauseating.
“Maybe hot and pretty nauseating” describes many of the actions and feelings with which the characters are struggling. This, ultimately, is what Padilla brings to the table with “How to Defend Yourself.”
Padilla is willing to grapple with the uncomfortable and shameful everyday feelings people have and hide, suggesting that to stop sexual assault, we have to drag out the squirming mess of shame, sex and violence each person has inside and shine a light on it.
“How to Defend Yourself” continues as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays through April 7. Actors Theatre is located at 316 W. Main St.
Insider’s reviews of the 43rd annual Humana Festival: