Written by Liliana Padilla. An Outhouse Theatre Co & Red Line Productions Production. The Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney. Australian Premiere. 11 August – 3 September 2022.
In the immediate aftermath of a violent rape on campus, a group of college students meet up to take a self-defense course. As they learn to use their bodies as weapons, they dissect the complexities and counter-intuitive impulses involved in desire, consent, repression, expectation and how young people are ill prepared to navigate these waters.
How To Defend Yourself is the third Outhouse Theatre Co production I’ve seen in Sydney this year (after Heroes of the Fourth Turning and American Ulster both at the Seymour Centre) and so far they have a hit rate higher than other company in town in my opinion. All three houses have been uncontested five star works – great texts, great performances and great productions.
Liliana Padella’s script is sharp, moving effortlessly from humour to emotional horror, giving us characters to laugh at who slowly deepen as the play progresses. Everyone is hiding their own trauma and dealing with it in different, often confronting, ways. It expertly underplays moments and lets the actors fill the space with subtext. Subtext! The thing that’s been lacking from so many other productions I’ve seen this year!
Each character is a delicious mix of motivations that constantly criss-cross the other characters in exciting ways – sometime producing comedy gold, other times awkward tension and flirtacious fun. Between the core group of five women Padella explores sex, sexual desire and consent from a variety of angles and doesn’t shy away from confronting questions. How can you give consent when you can’t even admit to your true desires? Who gets to decide if something is a kink or a symptom of trauma? How can you speak the truth when you’re trying to lie to yourself?
In a uniformly excellent ensemble, two performers stood out. Brittany Santariga holds the emotional center of the play as Brandi, the blonde, perky, sorority sister who’s taken it upon herself to teach the others the self-defense techniques she’s learnt. Santariga slowly unpeals Brandi like an emotional onion, layer after layer is pulled away in a performace that feels 100% natural and lived in.
Meanwhile Jessica Paterson’s meek Nikki goes on a different journey, initially baulking from her own power to being rendered powerless once again – with all the emotional aftermath that entails. In what could easily have been an overly ‘showy’ and over-acted role, Paterson measures out the moments expertly delivering a heartbreaking gut punch in the closing moments.
Honourable mention goes out to the two male performers who walk the tightrope between being comedic foils and deliver real pathos, Michael Cameron as the handsome, charmer Andy, and Saro Lepejian as Eggo, a well meaning young man trying to figure out where the boundaries lay.
The credit for creating this well balanced production has to reside with director Claudia Barrie. There is an honesty to these women’s experiences that is presented without judgement – each character has their own flaws and past experiences that inform their decisions, none come off as stereotypes. Simple, crisp staging keeps the attention firmly on the drama. Even when multiple conversations are overlapping, the moments are clear and natural – it was like watching verbal choreography, their timing was so effortlessly intricate.
The play’s ending takes a more surreal turn which is a definite bold swing. It comes dangerously close to losing the plot, but the message about youth, innocence and the way our children become adults too quickly is the cherry on top of this sundae.
How To Defend Yourself is exactly what I want from theatre; bold, intelligent, engaging, and presented powerfully. When so many of the big main-stage productions in town have fallen short of late, once again the fringe comes to the rescue. Unreservedly recommended.
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