A community of college students are left reeling after a pair of their fraternity brothers perpetrate a horrible crime against a sorority sister, leaving her hospitalised and unable to speak. In an examination of the after affects of sexual violence, How To Defend Yourself considers the ways these students are being failed by the institutions around them and a society that does not adequately interrogate its rape culture.
In the same way that Wherever She Wanders picked up on media attention of rape culture and misogyny on Australian university campuses, Liliana Padilla’s script responds to recent conversations around the sexual violence and rape culture at American colleges. The prevalence of sexual violence on US college campuses became a major media talking point after the release of the Hunting Ground in 2015, a documentary covering the failure by two major colleges to adequately address accusations of rape by two students. But the attention hasn’t done a lot to shift the statistics with the Rape, Assault, & Incest National Network reporting that a college-enrolled woman aged 18-24 is three times more likely to be the victim of sexual assault than women in different age brackets. Though, Padilla’s script focuses less on the punishment of the perpetrators and justice for the victim, rather turning towards a solution for preventing sexual violence and demonstrating the impact of women’s options for protecting themselves.
Brandi (Brittany Santariga) and Kara (Jessica Spies) were shocked and frightened when their sorority sister was hospitalised after two students from a fellow fraternity gang raped and physically assaulted her. In order to feel empowered and safer on their own campus, they decide to host a self-defence class for other female students with Brandi pulling from her experience as a black belt in karate. Diana (Georgia Anderson), Mojdeh (Madeline Marie Dona), and Nikki (Jessica Paterson) sign up for the class and Brandi and Kara recruit Andy (Michael Cameron) and Eggo (Saro Lepejian) to help out with demonstrations. On the surface, the self-defence class seems like an intelligent, productive step to help prevent something like what happened to Susannah from happening again. But, despite the participants’ enthusiasm, complicated discussions of consent, desire, and gender dynamics, messy relationships, and the pressures of their lives build tension in the room until it’s not so clear what is “good” and “bad” behaviour anymore. Is the class really getting them anywhere or are they deluding themselves into thinking they can protect themselves in a world steeped in misogyny and rape culture?
What Padilla’s script does sickeningly well is fully interrogate the neoliberal believe that women’s safety is an issue of individual responsibility by following that argument to its logical conclusion. At the same time, the various characters with their personal opinions about sex, relationships, and gender demonstrate another way that beliefs about “good” and “bad” behaviour, or more zeitgeist-y “healthy” v “unhealthy” behaviour, become siloed by individual determinations of morality, ethics, and responsibility, stymying the larger conversation about rape culture once again. When the messiness of desire infiltrates the class, the previously easy decision to rally behind Susannah’s survivorhood, to refuse to become victims, and to believe in their own abilities rings hollow and overly simplistic. The world is more complicated than that.
Under the direction of Claudia Barrie, the sinister and pessimistic underpinning of the script was revealed slowly, with plenty of lightness, humour, and fun for contrast. Soham Apte’s set design was bare but realistic in the recreation of a generic gym space with benches, ballet bar, cubby holes, and a lurking punching bag. The lighting design by Saint Clair injected a youthful flair into the space with multi-coloured transitional phases that, combined with Samantha Cheng’s pop music sound design, alluded to the ubiquitous parties that punctuated the college students’ campus life. In these transitions, Barrie included the actors for various moments of movement that were illustrative at best (the women practising punching or Eggo feeling his recent remix) and tonally jarring at worst (the women in a synchronised ballet routine on the bar). But these moments seemed to gesture forward to an extended movement scene as the ending, where the actors mimed an age regression from college party to children’s birthday party at which a young Susannah (played alternatingly by Naomi Kann, Ruby Howe, Mariah Sciacca, or Eden Rose Hough) blew out her birthday candles. The implication appeared to be that the self-defence class and the belief that it would protect the participants was akin to child’s play, just another game in a life-long string of games. But the design and presentation was, again, tonally jarring after an otherwise strong scripted closing scene. Instead this scene was undercut by a comical break to a technicolour Macarena which then required another undercutting in Susannah’s appearance like a reminder of the serious subject matter that constituted the majority of the production. It was a whiplash-enducing, highly confused ending that significantly detracted from an otherwise well-executed production.
Returning to the production’s strengths, the performances from the cast were impressive with easily recognisable characterisations of Gen Z and the pseudo-progressive language that permeates their conversations. Santariga and Spies were bright and bubbly when attempting to generate engagement from their peers as Brandi and Kara, but they also deftly handled the darker, more emotionally nuanced aspects of their characters including fear, anger, and guilt. Their introduction was a pitch-perfect balance of sarcasm and micro-aggression but the frustration of their arguments resonated. Cameron’s performance of another character who imbibed the chipper fraternity spirit gave a convincing portrayal of performative, white male allyship, using all the right vocabulary but deployed with a painful lack of awareness. Diana and Mojdeh had the most meaty backstories as college freshman still learning to navigate the social pools on campus as well as their sexualities and shifting friendship. Anderson’s Diana was a crowd favourite for her fiery individuality and she was well-fleshed out in Anderson’s dynamic physicality and novel use of voice. On the other hand, Paterson stood out as Nikki for her well-timed awkward laugh, strong control of silence and atmosphere on stage, and an ominous reservation in her dialogue. For a rather heavy script, the cast were in control of their performances as fully realised characters informed by experiences that stretched beyond the limitations of the stage which made for a potent and engaging production.
Continuing to frame sexual violence as an individual-on-individual crime and not a symptom of a systemic culture of violence and misogyny means that any attempts to prevent further harm through individual responsibility will fail again and again and again. If you’re not already in the choir, then maybe the fear, frustration, and anger of Susannah, Brandi, Kara, Diana, Mojdeh, and Nikki will be enough to make you see.
How To Defend Yourself is running at the Old Fitz Theatre from August 13th – September 3rd
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