'How to Defend Yourself' review — play about self-defense pulls its punches

Read our review of Liliana Padilla's How to Defend Yourself — directed by Padilla, Rachel Chavkin, and Steph Paul — at New York Theatre Workshop until April 2.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Liliana Padilla's How to Defend Yourself has its moments of strength. An early sequence sees five college girls in a nondescript workout room, throwing punches to the beat of Ginuwine's "Pony." The scene is meticulously choreographed, but it doesn't feel like a performance. They're tapping into something bigger.

These girls are here, in a makeshift self-defense workshop, to learn to protect themselves from would-be assaulters — something a now-hospitalized peer couldn't do. Their rhythmic movements give way to more free-flowing jabs as they release aggression and force and pain, some of it previously unknown to them. Maybe they're not even learning to fight back in this moment. Maybe they're just learning to fight.

They each have their reasons to, beyond avoiding their classmate's fate. Outspoken Diana (Gabriela Ortega) simply loves a good confrontation. Timid Nikki (Amaya Braganza) wants to be bolder. Insecure Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) wants to join the sorority led by the workshop's creators, Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez) and Brandi (Talia Ryder).

The pair know the unseen victim and want to protect themselves, protect everyone, from further harm. (That includes two guys, played by Sebastian Delascasas and Jayson Lee, who are frat brothers with the girl's attackers.) Or maybe they're just trying to absolve their guilt.

Putting all these personalities in an intimate environment where fears and fists are high is a setup ripe for drama. But both Padilla's script and her uneven co-direction with Rachel Chavkin and Steph Paul pull their punches.

All the predictable twists happen: Nikki finds her strength, two girls get into a fistfight, and the guys are complicit. But almost never does How to Defend Yourself dare to plunge into murkier moral territory. The play also never lets any character truly teeter on the edge, for better or worse, of connecting with their inner aggressor.

The closest it gets to probing any thorny questions is a gripping scene in which Kara and Brandi spar (verbally) over the "correct" way to sexually desire. Brandi teaches the girls to use their voices and dictate what they want; Kara argues her preference for being silently objectified is also valid, because it's what she likes.

But in this moment and others, when we think a character will break or a true shift will occur as revelations come to light, the moment abruptly ends. Like a weak punch, there's plenty of momentum but no follow-through.

This theme extends to the play's end. In her desperation to show the girls — and convince herself — they can protect themselves from anything, Brandi forgets to teach them the most important rule: Run away if you can. Only engage when you have to. Nikki's newfound bravado sends her looking for a fight, and when that goes south, Brandi's mythology of invincibility comes crashing down.

Ultimately, at this moment, so does How to Defend Yourself. The girls re-confront the reality that safety isn't guaranteed, but this time they're not emboldened to take control. Instead, they walk away.

So what's the takeaway? That self-defense isn't worthwhile? That we should pity these girls for giving up just as they're finding their strength? That we should feel sorry they sought strength at all because whether they use it or don't, it's never enough?

To be honest, none of these feel quite right. The one certain message is that an unsafe world awaits them all — us all — and always has. Padilla settles on that rather boilerplate point with a montage, in reverse, of the girls growing up and facing handsy boys at every school dance, frat party, and basement couch.

All this is something we women already know. So show us some new moves. Interrogate some new possibilities for how we as women can move, fight, and f--- our way through the world. Even if they're not righteous possibilities, at least they might pack a punch.

How to Defend Yourself is at New York Theatre Workshop through April 2. Get How to Defend Yourself tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, and Amaya Braganza in How to Defend Yourself. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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