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Theater Review:

"DEFENDING MYSELF," MPAACT Theatre at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Carla Stillwell’s new two-person play, "Defending Myself," has a promising premise. It aims to track – via traditional theater structure and performance touches like movement and soundscapes – the downfall of a relationship. The playwright’s goal of addressing the common outside misperceptions of an abusive relationship is an important one. But, at the same time Stillwell wishes to fill in those erroneous blanks, she leaves gaping holes in a script still in need of development, shape and dimension.

"Defending Myself" is receiving its world premiere by MPAACT Theatre (Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre) – where it was workshopped through the company’s new plays lab -- at Victory Gardens Theater. The most successful aspect of the work is its genuine representation of life’s ordinary moments – from the charming nervousness of a first date to the uncontrollable passion engulfing the early stages of a relationship, to the more mundane activities of living together, like cooking, showering and watching TV. And because of this ordinariness, the work’s later horrors are all the more jarring – especially when what starts as a tender romance descends into unspeakable brutality.

But the recognizability of the earlier parts of the story – while crucial to showing how a seemingly idyllic situation can turn ugly in an instant – also undermines the flow and dramatic logic of the script. The Greek tragedy-like finale comes out of nowhere. Stillwell moves from one extreme to the other – in a script filled with awkward fits and starts – without providing the necessary clues or transitions in between. I understand that life may not be so logical. However, because this is a play, the audience needs to see more dimensions to the characters and catch stronger glimpses into why this couple’s relationship takes such a rapid nosedive.

"Defending Myself" opens with Richard – a chef and restaurant owner – preparing a gourmet meal in his home for Aza, an R&B vocalist and music teacher. This is their first date, and both appear a bit jittery but soon warm to each other and slip into a breezy getting-to-know-you phase. Apart from a tiny hint that Richard – who seems to be a sensitive guy – had a bad relationship with his father, he comes across as a person who’s got his life together. Aza, an independent and somewhat cautious woman, seems in control of the situation, too.

Richard’s neediness slips in every once in a while, especially the way he pressures an initially reluctant Aza to move in with him. Yet, when she moves in, he fears his space is being invaded. Nevertheless, the scenes when he removes Aza’s decorative touches are more whimsical than a bleak foreshadowing of Richard’s psychopathic behavior. As a singer, Aza typically performs late at night. But this fact somehow comes as a surprise to Richard, who quickly accuses her of having an affair with her agent. Soon he’s telling her how to dress; lying to her employers until Aza loses a recording contract; and keeping her a prisoner in their home.

His actions are more schizophrenic than born out of intense jealousy. The dramatic situation is odd and difficult to reconcile. Why, for instance, would a restaurateur -- accustomed to working long hours – not only have so much time on his hands but also complain that his partner is not able to spend every waking hour at his side? While Aza teaches and records jingles during the day, for the most part, singers work at night and go through feast-or-famine periods in terms of gigs. So Aza really should be the one complaining about Richard, a successful restaurateur, not being around.

Most disturbing, however, are the characters’ lack of dimensions. Richard in particular jumps unconvincingly from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde; while Aza is given little room to explore her conflicting emotions.

Director Tiffany Trent sensitively guides two committed actors – Robert Hines III and China Colston – through a grueling intermission-less production, which is both physically and emotionally taxing. But the staging displays an awkward quality similar to the unpolished script. The numerous blackouts are distracting. And the actors must move from one day – or one week – to the next in a matter of seconds (at times, a discombobulating feat).

They also are required to maneuver around Shepsu Aakhu’s claustrophobic set, which forces them to enter and exit through an uncomfortably placed bedroom door or unconvincingly appear to be in completely separate rooms of the house. Kaniko Sago’s interchangeable costumes help with the quick changes yet, eventually, little distinction is made between the actors’ modes of dress. Richard’s pantomimed cooking scenes could use more theatrical finesse. It’s unclear why invisible "food" is used early on and real food is incorporated into a violent dinner episode (unless, metaphorically, it takes us from fantasy to reality).

Finally, the playwright needs to decide whether "Defending Myself" is a play or a performance piece. In its current form, it fits into neither category nor does it sufficiently integrate multiple art forms (including the evocative sound design by Ministers of the New Super Heavy Funk) in a balanced manner.

In her program notes, Stillwell talks about her motivations for showing what goes on between two people, engaged in a dangerously dysfunctional relationship, behind closed doors and exploring "what happens when words run out." Unfortunately, the movement and sound elements are not strong enough to illuminate that intangible and misunderstood universe where words are no longer sufficient. The script itself requires more compelling dialogue, concrete character impulses and smoother transitions – even if Stillwell attempts to dramatize an erratic and inexplicable situation.

At one point, the piece verges on satire when Aza remarks, "Oh no, I’m stuck in a bad ‘70s flick." The play veers dangerously into similar B-movie territory – especially the out-of-the-blue slasher-style ending.

MPAACT Theatre’s production of "Defending Myself" runs through June 2 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $15-$20. Call 773-871-3000 or log onto www.mpaact.org.

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