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Ariana Mahalatti, Fedra Ramirez and Andrea van den Boogaard. (Photos courtesy of Manny Rotenberg.)

War and sexual assault are two issues that continue to affect countless people. A few of the selections at the UCSD Theatre & Dance: Wagner New Play Festival, How to Defend Yourself and SERE handle these subjects in ways that are highly impactful.

This festival features writers that are a part of the MFA theater program on campus. The anti-sexual assault, comedic drama, How to Defend Yourself follows the aftermath of the brutal rape of a San Diego college student.

Following the heinous act, several college students such as the sexually inexperienced Mojdeh (Ariana Mahalatti), her confident friend Diana (Fedra Ramirez) and the timid Nikki (Molly Adea) attend a DIY self-defense workshop led by a tough instructor Brandi (Andrea van den Boogaard). Eventually, two men, the well meaning and caring Andy (Garrett Schulte) and the frustrated Eggo, (Trevor Rinzler), join the women at the workshop.

Lily Padilla’s prose accurately captures the college experience. Both the men and women aren’t afraid to bluntly share their views on sex and relationships.

Many of her scenes can shift between being hilarious and uncomfortably serious. Her shifts in tone reflect how conversations between young adults change after a couple of moments.

If a couple of plot points written by Padilla can be predictable to some theatregoers, they still feel organic to the plot that she created.

Kim Rubinstein allows the sessions, performed at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, to be informative, funny and sometimes invigorating. She keeps audiences fully engaged with both group conversations (occasionally with overlapping dialogue) and intimate one-on-one discussions.

Aiding Rubinstein with the authenticity and energy of the classes are Jamie Newcomb’s fight choreography and Steven Leffue’s audio. Newcomb’s self-defense moves showcase the growing self-assurance that the students achieve, and Seffue uses songs such as Rihanna’s “Jump” and K.Flay’s “Blood in the Cut” to highlight the growing bond between the classmates and Brandi.

All the performers are likeable and relatable, without ignoring the flaws in their roles. Mahalatti, Ramirez, Boogaard, Schulte and the rest of the cast always act like real college students, as opposed to stereotypical caricatures.

Using these fleshed-out undergrads, Padilla is able to tell a story about rape prevention in a way that’s very sensitively handled and often hilarious.

While How to Defend Yourself features plenty of levity, Aya Geyer’s war drama, SERE (an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance Escape) is a tonally darker evening of theatre.

During a dinner party, a new member of SEAL Team 5, Chris (Brandon O’Sullivan) meets a duo of more experienced SEALS, Malcolm (Sidney Hill) and Alec (Allyn Anthony Moriyon). Chris ends up being drawn to Malcolm’s charismatic attitude and authoritative demeanor.

Months later, Chris, Malcolm and Alec return home from their time overseas. It soon becomes pretty clear that something horrible occurred during their tour of duty. The rest of the show is about how Chris and Malcolm come to terms with their actions.

Every scene takes place in different kitchens on Samuel Keamy-Minor’s intentionally unflashy set. Director Dylan Key’s production at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre creates the atmosphere of being at an actual dinner party early on, with discussions that start out light and relaxed.

Ava Geyer’s prose becomes significantly grimmer and dramatic when Chris, Malcolm and Alec are back to living normal lives. The San Diego audience finds out how the three of them react when their morality is questioned.

Allyn Anthony Moriyon, Sidney Hill and Brandon O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan and Hill give contrasting performances that suit the roles they are playing. O’Sullivan portrays Chris in a calm and controlled styled, even at his angriest, while Hill is much more commanding and animated as Malcolm. Both co-stars reveal different layers to Chris and Malcolm as the plot progresses.

Two scenes aren’t quite on the same level as the rest of the script. A situation where Chris’ girlfriend, Paige (Christine Penn) is at odds with Alec, his partner Mariana (Farah Dinga) and Malcolm’s love interest Ellen (Serina Estrada) occurs at a random part of the evening. Another scene building up the confrontation between the four of them could result in a situation that might feel more natural.

Also, while I don’t want to give away too much, the resolution does feature a couple of lines that are a bit heavy-handed. Overall though, there is plenty to recommend about SERE.

The Wagner New Play Festival continues to present engrossing plots that aren’t afraid to challenge festival attendees. Both How to Defend Yourself and SERE will leave you excited to see more tales by these playwrights.

DOWNLOAD HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF CAST AND CREDITS HERE

DOWNLOAD SERE CAST AND CREDITS HERE

[box] Show times for How to Defend Yourself are tonight at 7:30 p.m and Thursday at 7:30 pm. [/box]

[box] Show times for SERE are Thursday at 7:30 p.m and Saturday at 2:20 p.m. [/box]

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UCSD Department of Theatre and Dance
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David Dixon

David Dixon

A fan of theatre from a young age, David Dixon began writing reviews while in middle school, for Union Tribune’s Rated G column and sdcnn.com. He was the Entertainment Editor for SDSU’s The Daily Aztec. Currently, he contributes to San Diego Community News Network, a regional reviewer for Talkin’ Broadway, an interviewer for San Diego Theatre Reviews and has won several San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. David is a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle member, an American Theatre Critics Association member & Regional Theatre Tony Award voter.

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