Defending Myself | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Defending Myself

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Defending Myself, Ma'at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre, at Victory Gardens Theater. "Few words and no labels...can articulate what happens in private between two people," says writer Carla Stillwell, whose new play "explores what happens when words run out." And indeed there may be an ineffable essence to relationships and the way they sour; but Defending Myself's maddeningly oblique, uncommunicative characters and their inexplicable behavior seem more the product of an author at a loss for words.

On the surface this seems a cautionary tale about controlling males, but Stillwell's program notes and the weird determinism of the scenes suggest a less mundane goal. Maybe it's a hypermetaphoric examination of power dynamics, maybe it's an exaggeration of a specific couple's dysfunction--since the two characters behave without any motivation against a screaming void of background and place, it's hard to tell. Aza (China Colston) and big-time chef Richard (Robert Hines III) have some lovely dinners at his place, things go too well too quickly, engagement and cohabitation follow--at which point blandly appealing Richard turns into the Incredible Hulk. About halfway through you figure things are headed for a classic "burning bed" finish, but boy are you in for a surprise.

Tiffany Trent's crisp direction, a unifying sound design, and some heroic acting make the show grippingly bad. The intriguingly kinetic, largely wordless second half (credit choreographer Jennifer Savarirayan) intensifies the symbolism of interpersonal decay, putting the quizzical finishing touch on an empty but well-done effort.

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