Doireann Mac Mahon

The Harm in Surviving

Review of How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret

Written by Doireann Mac Mahon, a third-year acting student at the Yale School of Drama, How to Relearn Yourself addresses the issue of sexual assault in social settings, and its existential impact on the victim. Like Anna Ziegler’s Actually, Mac Mahon’s play is mostly concerned with the aftermath of a sexual violation that occurs between two college freshmen, a male and a female. But unlike Actually, which puts its emphasis on the psychology of two students who date and move toward sex which takes place after the woman has changed her mind (and the way the school handles the complaint), in Mac Mahon’s play rape is taking advantage of someone unable to consent or refuse. Mac Mahon presents the post-event state of mind of The Girl (played by Mac Mahon) as a traumatic questioning of everything she knows or thought she knew.

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon),  How to Relearn Yourself , Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019 (Photos by Emily Duncan Wilson)

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019 (Photos by Emily Duncan Wilson)

How to Relearn Yourself is less about the culture of rape and the way teens comport themselves—though it does register some of the surrounding attitudes—and more about violation as a psychic affront. The play is gripping because its central character is so clearly in the grip of emotions that have no public or social outlet—it’s their privacy that makes them real. They belong to her alone.

Directed by Maeli Goren, a second-year director whose previous work at the Cab was the lively children’s mystery The Whale in the Hudson last season, the action takes place in a kind of isolation booth of white gauze that seems to glow from within (set and lighting by Stephanie Bahniuk). The way the audience is placed around the space makes us look a bit like voyeurs, a bit like a panel of judges. Inside there’s a couch, liberally strewn with articles of clothing. There’s also a coffee table. Two roommates, Squirrel (Leyla Levi) and The Girl, share a small flat where, Squirrel tells us, they aren’t too particular about housekeeping. They start out as two friends who try hard to share each other’s tastes and outlooks—and eventually that means going to parties together as backup, and possibly fixing each other up. It’s Squirrel’s idea that The Girl should go on a blind date with good-looking Dragon (Edwin Joseph).

Squirrel (Leyla Levi), The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph) in  How to Relearn Yourself , Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

Squirrel (Leyla Levi), The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph) in How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

We get to watch some version of this date, and by this point there has come into the proceedings a voice over, O (Maëlle Puechoultres), who poses questions like an investigator, on one hand, or, on the other, a kind of superego in loco parentis who might be a conscience of sorts. It’s a given that, whenever something untoward happens—particularly among the young—there is no end of second-guessing advice from the more experienced. O seems to stand for an external viewpoint, introjected to some extent, by which the actants are supposed to judge themselves.

For Dragon there’s so little cause for judgment. The blind date, he thinks, went well. What we see is that he’s rather callously full of himself but not in a threatening way. He thinks it’s becoming to talk about “just taking” something if you want it, and he wants to paint The Girl’s portrait, and he’s an up-and-comer, and lots of other bravado. Joseph plays him as obtuse but outgoing. The Girl’s reactions—and Mac Mahon is skilled at minor facial flurries that say so much—show us that he’s not going over nearly so well as he thinks. The Girl tells Squirrel that she really doesn’t want to see him again; he made her uncomfortable. That view seems to count for nothing to her friend.

Next thing we know there’s a party at Dragon’s place and The Girl has to go because—Squirrel says—there’s a guy there she’s interested in and she needs support, though it’s clear she’s also convinced that The Girl should give Dragon another chance. Then there’s lots of alcohol shots and loud music and dancing on couches until, apparently, The Girl passes out. Next thing she knows, she’s in a car and there’s blood, and one version of herself is “out of body” and out of the car, looking on at her powerless body. Here the particulars of what is actually happening get vague—and that’s the point. No one really knows, with unclouded certainty, and yet The Girl’s body does and what it tells her freaks her out.

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph), Squirrel (Leyla Levi) in  How to Relearn Yourself , Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph), Squirrel (Leyla Levi) in How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

Rather than move into the she said/he said terrain of Actually, Mac Mahon moves us into the psyche of The Girl where much is amiss. Squirrel can see—and report to O—that The Girl has changed: things she used to hate to do—like exercise—she now does, and things she used to do—like drink—she now hates. Their friendship suffers and Squirrel is apt to find The Girl seeking solace squirreled up behind the fridge rather than in activities they might share. Meanwhile, Dragon gets on with his life, not sure at all what became of Squirrel and her friend and not in the least concerned.

For The Girl, however, everything has changed, changed utterly. Perhaps because she’s Irish, her effort to present her inner state to Squirrel entertains questions about the reality of Jesus and of the afterlife. There’s even a segment in which fetuses are likened to parasites using the mother’s body as a host. The point is that The Girl is trying to express a state of extreme alienation toward her own physical being, but she’s also relearning her own moral compass. And what it comes down to—with considerable dramatic force—is that good and bad are entirely different, and thus Dragon can’t be both, and, what’s more, surviving is a terrible way to live.

The force of these ideas come from The Girl’s almost Beckettian journey through who or what she is when what she thought she was no longer suffices. Her view and her friend’s diverge so essentially that they truly are alternate realities. In Squirrel’s, Dragon is, if not totally good, at least harmless. In The Girl’s, he’s mean and, to make him even more nasty, conceals it quite well.

Lurking here, unstated but well-staged, is the nagging sense of what we might call intuition, as a capacity to know something simply because we know it. The Girl knows that what she knows isn’t something she can prove—and the burden of that knowledge, among other things, is not to go crazy from it (as for instance, the knowledge that someone “may smile and smile and be a villain”).

Relearning, in this context, is getting on with being who you have to be, though friends and even you to yourself seem like strangers. The implications of the play—as a reflection, for instance, on a certain U.S. Supreme Court justice—suggest that something is rotten in the state, indeed.

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How to Relearn Yourself
Written and Proposed by Doireann Mac Mahon
Directed by Maeli Goren

Producers: Samanta Yunuen Cubias, Markie Gray; Scenic & Lighting Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer: Noel Nichols; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Associate Director & Choreographer: Eli Pauley; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Bekah Brown

Cast: Edwin Joseph, Leyla Levi, Doireann Mac Mahon, Maëlle Puechoultres

Yale Cabaret
October 10-12, 2019

Yale Cabaret is dark this week but returns October 23-26 with Red Speedo, Lucas Hnath’s well-received drama about competitive swimmers, proposed by Patrick Ball, Eli Pauley, and Adam Shaukat, and directed by Pauley.