Eve Ensler, Tony winning playwright, activist, and performer has blasted onto the Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage with her monologue performance of In The Body of The World. Based on her 2013 memoir, this rant and rumination about the disconnection of her body and the bodies of women she has encountered in her peripatetic life is delivered with wry self-awareness and brutal humor. “If you are divided from your body, you are also divided from the body of the world which then appears to be other than you or separate from you rather than a living continuum to which you belong.” (New Self, New World by Phillip Shepherd). Ensler has taken this to heart, and created a raw, deeply personal and powerful account of how she found her connection to the body of the world.
The performance is divided into three sections: Somnolence, Burning, and Second Wind. A backdrop of video projections evoke travel and provide orientation to words and to landscapes, from the definition of “hysteria,” to the lush vegetation of the Congo, to the tree outside her hospital window.
Somnolence begins in childhood. Molested by her father and emotionally estranged from her mother, Ensler embarked on a “life-long disconnection from my body,” that was temporarily slaked with drug abuse, promiscuity, and risk-taking. “I existed in the trying but my body was often in the way,” she explains. She started to ask other women about their bodies, in particular, their vaginas, “incessantly and obsessively” collecting their stories. The Vagina Monologues catapulted her to fame and created “a mad driven machine,” that traveled to over 60 countries to collect women’s rape stories. But the Democratic Republic of the Congo stopped her in her tracks; it is there that the stories women told her shattered all the other stories that had come before. She encountered women disconnected from their bodies by inconceivable atrocities; a child with holes ripped into her vagina and bladder, an old woman whose legs were pulled out of their sockets during a barbaric rape by soldiers. She conflates the holes being ripped into the earth to extract metals for cell phones and computers with the holes being ripped into these women’s bodies. Out of the horror, she envisions a refuge for these brutalized, disconnected Congolese women. And then she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Burning chronicles Ensler’s personal struggle with cancer: the mutilating surgery, the complications of her treatment, and the tenuous hold she had on life. Suddenly she had a body and it was being poked and prodded and operated on. She recounts the depersonalizing experience of a doctor performing a procedure without anesthesia, leaving her breathless with pain as he quietly slipped out the door. She compares the fire of chemotherapy burning through her body with the fires ripping through the earth. Beginning to sound like a pretty grim theater experience?
Ensler has always been able to command a stage; she can be strident and brutal and confrontational. But she is also funny (“You’re going to radiate. My vagina. Do you know who I am?”) and self-deprecating, and her nimble wit propels us to the other side of the horrors of her treatment and, perhaps, even to the other side of the injuries suffered by the women of the Congo. She develops a deep appreciation for the healing power of her doctors, nurses and friends, and bonds with a loving sister she thought had been lost to her.
Second Wind offers Ensler’s hard-won realization that everything is connected. The healing of her body and opening of City of Joy, the therapeutic residential program for Congolese women who have experienced violence, coalesce. Her recovery from cancer becomes the metaphor by which she dramatizes the connections between our bodies and our world.
Director Diane Paulus keeps the pace lively and provides a forward movement to Ensler’s monologue, preventing it from becoming a TED Talk. In addition to the video screens, Myung Hee Cho has created a simple, versatile living room with a chair and pillows and a divan that easily becomes a hospital bed when covered with a white sheet.
The play is at its very best when it exists in her real world instead of the metaphorical one. In the end, the video screens disappear, the apartment set is gone and the stage becomes a lush verdant garden of live plants and shrubs with paper lanterns and a giant golden Buddha. In the center of it all is Eve Ensler, a force of nature, inviting the audience onto the stage, enticing us to become a part of her body and the body of the world. She sure is hard to resist.
In The Body of The World in a co-production by the American Repertory Theater and the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, 133 West 55th Street, running through through March 25, 2018. Written and performed by Eve Ensler. Directed by Diane Paulus; scenic and costume design by Myung Hee Cho; lighting design by Jen Schriever; sound design by M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner; movement by Jill Johnson.
Cover: Eve Ensler in ‘In the Body of the World;’ photo: Joan Marcus.
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