The company of How to Defend Yourself | Photo: Joan Marcus

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 15, 2023 8:20 AM

Very few words are actually exchanged between the passengers on The Coast Starlight’s titular rail service. In Keith Bunin’s play, which opened this week at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theatre, most of what you hear takes place in an alternate, psychic limbo where its characters reach out and engage with each other in profound ways they might never do with a transient stranger.

Aboard the northbound West Coast train, some develop quasi-love affairs, others trauma dump, and all share their anxieties about their current situations. These people, we are somewhat jarringly reminded, share little more than nods and puzzled looks, but Bunin creates a touching, misty parallel universe in which everyone seizes upon every opportunity to care for, and take care of, each other. In that cosmic possibility, everyone listens, everyone puts their most generous foot forward. As comic standout Mia Barron’s character muses upon an offer of selflessness from a fellow passenger, the kindness makes her want to “navigate myself back to the world of the decent.” Bunin strikes a poignant chord, philosophizing that, while it’s sometimes easier to help others than to look at yourself, the personal therapy that can be gained through altruism is not to be discarded, either.

The Coast Starlight | Photo: T Charles Erickson

Arnulfo Maldonado’s set—a rotating cube separated from the audience,  mechanical bull style, in a pen—is most engaging when 59 Productions’ projections over it ebb and flow into each other. Though director Tyne Rafaeli lyrically handles her cast’s constant rearranging of the chairs, it can sometimes feel as if the cube spins out of boredom. Similarly, Bunin’s writing goes into itself over and over, finding small gems along the way but often stumbling over its own repetitions: a passenger embarks, parks and barks their story, and the group begins to hypothesize on what might be.

But to best grapple with the intricacies and impossibilities of navigating the world as a body that is a site of contradicting choices, made by ourselves and others, you’ll need to run to New York Theatre Workshop to see Liliana Padilla’s first-rate How to Defend Yourself, which they co-direct with Rachel Chavkin and Steph Paul, who also handles the production’s invaluable movement work. A masterclass in ensemble theatre as wide-ranging exploration, it asks smart questions about consent, fantasy, and the blurring effect that desire can have on the politicized psyche.

With their sorority sister in the hospital following a brutal sexual assault, the chipper Brandi (Talia Ryder) and impudent Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez) launch a self-defense class at their college gym as a proactive, if unexamined, response. In attendance are Nikki (Amaya Braganza), who takes up as little space as possible, and best friends Diana (powerhouse Gabriela Ortega) and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati), whose incongruous levels of sexual experience provide humor and rupture.

That two of the aggressors’ fraternity brothers, sweet-natured Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) and quietly volcanic Eggo (Jayson Lee), join the course as assistants does complicate things, but not in the ways you’d expect—the arc of Padilla’s story is as fresh and inventive as their dialogue is witty and individual. The inclusion of men instead doesn’t restrict them into an easy feminist indictment, instead opening up new lines of inquiry into how sexuality is as rich and unpinnable, in presentation and preference, as gender. Andy’s squinting fascination with the assault might easily stem from the perspicuity of his identity (White, backwards cap, bro-y demeanor), but is as richly digressed from gendered expectations as a stunning solo Eggo performs while believing himself to be alone (Paul’s choreography sublimates the energies of fight, dance, and sex to dazzling effect).

How To Defend Yourself | Photo: Joan Marcus

The three co-directors make excellent use of You-Shin Chen’s realistic set, blocking the alternately restless and timid college kids in groups, break-out clusters, and quieter scenes in a way that suggests a space endless with possibilities, able to contain the multiple worlds, both physical and emotional, within. And everything from Izumi Inaba’s costumes (inspired tracksuits and Supreme boxers  for Brandi) to Mikhail Fiksel’s music (Rihanna, Avril Lavigne, and a “Formation” remix you’ll have to stop yourself from Shazaming) to Stacey Derosier’s jaw-dropping lighting help the already-strong script achieve its best presentation.

If you have an inkling of how a narrative surrounding physical assault might climax, Padilla regrettably does not stray from a facile tying up of strands better left provocatively undone. But the misstep is followed by one of the most vivid, striking coups de théâtre in recent memory: a dream ballet of sorts that tracks the latent history of our bodies, from college keggers to tween pool parties to playground birthdays, magnificently underscoring the terrifying, exciting possibilities of tenderness, sex, danger, and passion. The staggering sequence is elegant, but showcases the strength of the stellar production’s cast, direction, and thematic potency.

The Coast Starlight is in performance through April 16, 2023 at Lincoln Center Theatre’s Newhouse Theatre on West 65th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

How to Defend Yourself is in performance through April 2, 2023 at New York Theatre Workshop on East 4th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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