Victory Gardens’ “How to Defend Yourself” is a play for 2020. Audiences are hungry for work that speaks to the current climate without just quoting from headlines, that lets us escape into the characters’ world without neglecting our own. In this piece about a peer-led self-defense group, started after a violent sexual assault occurs on a college campus, playwright Liliana Padilla takes on the dual roles of educator and storyteller, skillfully avoiding the trap of a how-to play where the audience might feel like they’re auditing a class instead of engaging with a story.
“How to Defend Yourself” exposes how sorely we are lacking in matters of sex education: not reproductive education, as it is often reduced to in schools, but actual, meaningful, practical discussion about sex, sexuality, desire, pleasure, consent, communication and the complexity of navigating it all. Culturally, we are beginning to recognize sexual assault as a pervasive problem that we all have some relationship to, regardless of gender and position, but have been slow to develop the tools to address the impact, whether acute, complex or generational. What happens to us—any of us, all of us—when we actually let ourselves feel the trauma of it all? How do we even begin to hold all of that, especially if we’re not allowed to talk about it?
To survive, we armor up, pulled by a call deep down to make ourselves less vulnerable however we can, whether that means learning to make weapons out of pens and keys, blurring lines between sex and violence in our own understanding or closing ourselves off to sexual pleasure and connection entirely, manufacturing a false sense of control that might ultimately be as dangerous and dehumanizing as the violence itself. More and more, it falls to art-makers to remind audiences that they are not alone in the ways that they question, cope and defend.
The production itself is on point. Marti Lyons directs with a keen awareness of the audience’s needs, offsetting the weight of these big conversations with hope, humor and movement (choreographed by Steph Paul) that is strong and joyful. The ensemble is believably young: they puff themselves up and make themselves small, trying to fit in and stand out all at once. They are also funny, smart across the board in their choices and recognizable without becoming tropes or stereotypes (with the help of always-excellent costume designer Christine Pascual). Yu Shibagaki’s detailed set puts us right where we need to be, and in collaboration with lighting designer Paul Toben, the piece has a dynamic visual vocabulary.
While conversations about sexuality and sexual trauma are increasing in the mainstream and our comfort level in talking about sex is increasing generationally, there are still so many valid narratives, experiences and questions that fall outside of acceptable discourse. It is easy to conceive that a play like “How to Defend Yourself” might be a rare, representative experience or an important opportunity for reflection, beyond the still-distilled “Me Too” dialogue. In this outstanding production of a thoughtful and important play, Padilla and company remind us that sex and trauma are two different things, that there is no one perfect solution to an inextricable problem and that there is hope, support and progress to be found in community. (Erin Shea Brady)
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000, victorygardens.org, $36-$62. Through February 23.