Victory Gardens Theatre presents HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF Review: Timely and Deeply Personal

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“I just want to be the kind of person people want.”

Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) is frustrated about a recent date, and as she vents to her friend, Diana (Isa Arciniegas), she admits the above. The moment is emotional and heartbreaking – watching a young woman desperately admit to her friend that no matter what she does, she feels undesirable. Despite Dian’s best efforts to comfort her friend, Mojdeh has accepted this as her truth.

Liliana Padilla’s play is about many things. This is a story about consent, self-defense, and strength. The piece is also about a desire to be seen – and the struggle to find one’s own voice along that journey. This writer urges you to lean in and keep your mind open, because the story that unfolds over the course of the action-packed 95 minutes is important, but in no way easy to swallow.

Victory Gardens presents Co-World Premiere of How to Defend Yourself

Written by Liliana Padilla and directed by Marti Lyons, How to Defend Yourself centers around seven college students who gather for a self-defense class. A sorority sister was sexually assaulted, and Brandi (Anna Crivelli) wants to offer her peers the tools necessary to defend themselves. The self-defense becomes a channel for their anger, trauma, anxiety, and even desire. Over the course of the play, the young people begin to discuss their views towards consent and communication, allowing for an opportunity to learn – even when some may be a little less open-minded.

Padilla writes a story that is dark and at times challenging to hear, especially as the characters begin to reveal the details of Susannah’s assault. However, Padilla is careful to include moments of comedy to help offset, and Lyons helps her ensemble find that perfect comedic timing – allowing for a production that takes the audience on a roller coaster ride through highs and lows.

Anna Crivelli, Ariana Mahallati, Andrea San Miguel, and Isa Arciniegas in HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF Liz Lauren
Ariana Mahallati and Isa Arciniegas in HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF Liz Lauren

Powerful Storytelling

 The ensemble—in this writer’s view, masterfully directed by Lyons— conveys the emotional complexities of the story – from the joyful moments between friends, to the deeper struggles that arise when navigating trauma and guilt.

Isa Arciniegas and Netta Walker in HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF Liz Lauren

An example is when Kara (Netta Walker), one of Susannah’s sorority sisters, becomes overcome with guilt at being unable to help in her time of need. In a time of desperation, she asks Diana to hit her. The more Diana resists, the more Kara begs, and over the course of the fight, their anxiety and frustration explode. This writer does not want to give anything too big away, but secrets are reveled, and these women know exactly which buttons to push to get the desired reactions. Walker and Arciniegas share authentic and heartbreaking performances - conveying the clear hurt and confusion in both characters, and their deep desire to feel agency in their respective situations.

Once the two women calm down and finally sit on the ground in exhaustion, Kara touches Diana’s foot with her own. The stage is empty, and the room is silent – all that can be seen are these two characters sharing a small moment of connection. The action is subtle, but powerful, and it was easy to feel the tension spread throughout the Opening Night crowd as we wondered what would happen next. Communicating is never easy – especially when attempting to find words to describe emotions almost too big to comprehend. However, Lyons and Padilla invite the audience to learn alongside these characters as they discover that language for themselves.

Moments of Triumph

 Padilla’s play traverses some darker territory, but she is also careful to include moments of celebration in the play that Lyons lifts up in her production.

In one such scene, Eggo (Jayson Lee) walks on stage and begins to dance. He has been quiet for a lot of the play leading up to this moment; however, when he is alone and the music intensifies, we finally see him truly begin to express himself. Lighting Designer Paul Toben even fills the space with technicolor bright lights that add to the intensity and excitement. As the choreography becomes more extreme – even with some ground work and rolling around, the Opening Night audience applauded. Lyons and her team create the sensation of being invited into a private moment – that we as an audience have earned the trust of the character, and are granted the opportunity to celebrate and enjoy alongside Eggo. Judging from the volume of the cheers from the surrounding audience, this writer feels it is safe to assume they appreciated the opportunity.

A powerhouse ensemble and a thought-provoking, fast-paced production make How to Defend Yourself, for this writer, an unforgettable night of theater. Whether you are an audience member who appreciates a piece in conversation with this political moment, or you are just looking for a night to learn and feel alongside some talented performers, this play has a little something for everyone.

Anna Crivelli and Jayson Lee in HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF Liz Lauren
Netta Walker, Jayson Lee, Anna Crivelli, Ariana Mahallati, and Ryan McBride in HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF Liz Lauren

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Title:                                        How to Defend Yourself
By:                                           Liliana Padilla
Directed by:                            Marti Lyons


Isa Arciniegas (Diana), Anna Crivelli (Brandi), Jayson Lee (Eggo), Ariana Mahallati (Mojdeh), Ryan McBride (Andy), Andrea San Miguel (Nikki), and Netta Walker (Kara)


Creative team:

Yu Shibagaki (scenic design), Christine Pascual (costume design), Paul Toben (lighting design), Thomas Dixon (sound design), Bren Coombs (props design), Steph Paul (movement director), Matt Hawkins (fight director), Rachel Flesher (intimacy director), Kat Zukaitis (dramaturg) and Alison McLeod (stage manager).


Through February 23, 2020

Tuesdays - Fridays: 7:30pm
Saturdays: 3:00pm; 7:30pm
Sundays: 3:00pm


Victory Gardens Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Avenue,



For full-priced tickets and ticket availability information visit the Victory Gardens Theater website or call 773.871.3000

Check for Half-Price Deals from Hot Tix:

Photos:  Liz Lauren

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago

About the Author:

Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.

Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.


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