Get comfortable with being uncomfortable


In a DIY self-defense class hosted by sorority sisters in the aftermath of a rape, seven college students confront their inner victims and violators. Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.’s production of Liliana Padilla’s “How to Defend Yourself” is brutally honest, often funny and sometimes visceral.

Props to Peppermint Creek for bravely staging the production and entrusting this sensitive subject material with a first-time director. In choosing to explore the insidious ways sexual violence can steal one’s sense of self, the theater company delves into themes that could risk alienating itself from some patrons. Regardless, the play is impeccably executed. It’s evident that great care went into the choreography choices, the hard-driving rave-style dance music and the set, which accurately looks like a breakout room in a school gym. While the play doesn’t depict sexual violence, it discusses it with raw frankness. To that end, Peppermint Creek wisely made use of intimacy coordinators.

There are standout performances by Brittany Renee Bell as “wannabe” sorority girl Mojdeh; Carmen Zavala-Kelly as tough, gun-loving Diana; Elena Billard as objectified and edgy sorority sister Kara; Storm Kopitsch as earnest but vulnerable instructor Brandi; Rachael Steffens as self-effacing and terrified Nikki; TJ Kelly Jr. as nerdy and confused Eggo; and Adrian Wiseman-Rose as Andy, the occasionally opportunistic fraternity brother who plays at being an “ally.”

If I have one criticism of the production, with no fault to Peppermint Creek, it’s that the proscenium-style stage negates the intimacy the play was hoping to achieve. While the play may not have been written for theater in the round, allowing the audience to have closer proximity to the actors from all angles draws us in to the shared blame of the normalization of sexual violence. This is a play that’s meant to be loud and in your face, but unfortunately, with the audience so removed from the action, the sound is dampened. I felt distanced from the heartbreak of it all when I should have been drawn in with stinging immediacy. 

Padilla’s play explores the idea of rape culture, which is “perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies and the glamorization of sexual violence,” according to Southern Connecticut State University. (Yes, this definition was intentionally plucked from a college website.) Triggered by a horrific rape of one of their own by two of their own, every character in the story is grappling with their inner demons: fear of harm, fear of rejection, shame, deviancy, lack of power. But while the playwright cracks a window into the souls of seven college co-eds, their characters never seem to fully round out. There is no story arc — it’s a problem without a resolution.

But instead of resolution, the play points a finger at our culpability. The strobed montage sequence at the end of the production highlights a middle school, high school and college party culture in which drinking and sexing are de rigueur. It culminates in a birthday party scene in which Susannah, the rape victim, is surrounded by friends that say, “What did you wish for, Susannah?” Such a loaded question.

“How to Defend Yourself”

Feb. 8-11

7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

2 p.m. Sunday

Stage One Performing Arts Center

2200 Lake Lansing Road, Lansing


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