“… I have been exiled from my body. I was ejected at a young age and I got lost. For years I have been trying to find my way back to my body, and to the earth.” Sounds poetic, doesn’t it, rather like the neopagan goddess movement? In fact, author/actress/activist Eve Ensler’s journey lead her past family and marital abuse, through indulgence of alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity to a liquor, drug and smoke free, physically active, vegetarian existence, albeit maintaining “lots of sex.” Ensler hastens to show she’s struggling, fallible, one of us.
Ensler is an evangelist. She believes women (read humanity) capable of the kind of enlightened activism that respectfully nurtures both our bodies and earth – where they reside; one that supports, defends, connects and celebrates. If we neither turn away nor harm, are courageous and willing she posits, there’s hope. One can only admire the example she sets.
In 2010, on the verge of opening City of Joy, an African healing sanctuary for women who experienced unspeakable violence, Ensler discovered she had uterine cancer. The disease “… threw me into the center of my body’s crisis. The Congo threw me into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced what I felt sure was the beginning of the end.” (Ensler wonders whether she brought it on herself and if her trial is meant to teach.) It’s this two headed experience she shares. While her other plays featured the voices of many women, this one is markedly personal; highly specific and starkly raw. She stands before us naked from breast to soul.
The show includes grim details, but is pointedly not a deluge of suffering. Extremely deft, Ensler weaves humor (gallows and otherwise) through her story like a couturier. Her stay at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, aka “Tumor Town,” is often wryly described. Seen in the recovery room, she peeks beneath a blanket as if observing what remains after the surgeons’ excavation. Having to rate pain verges on one of David Letterman’s lists. “How’d I get it?!” Ensler muses, “…was it tofu… marriage failure…bad reviews…not being breastfed… Tab-oh my God, I drank so much Tab…”
Between treatments, telephone conversations with a Congolese woman named Angelique about difficulties with the African project (the grisly history and determination of those women is startling), and her own mother’s bout with cancer, helped keep Ensler from imploding. The first are frustrating, angering, energizing; the second debilitating, moving, and finally healing.
We hear about her alienated past, lengthy communion with a tree when she lacked strength for anything else, selfless volunteers, deep friendships, a birthday party in the hospital that sounds like Woodstock before the mud, and “things not to think about on day four of chemo: garbage-where does it go…the disappearance of bees…and if you’re in chemo now, Kellyann Conway…” When was the last time you stood and danced in front of your seat at theater?!
Ensler could easily have died. Instead, the artist persevered, enduring physical and emotional challenges few of us will ever face. (She’s fine.) That she kneaded pain, enfeeblement, and fear into recommitment to galvanizing humanitarianism is a case of making maggot occupied lemons into lemonade. I don’t mean to sound frivolous. This is a woman who found her deeper self in a foxhole, emerging grateful for the sun above and warm earth round her corporal form. Refusing pedestals, Eve Ensler inspires awareness and encourages participation. Off stage, she gives great hugs.
In The Body of The World is both powerful and entertaining; beautifully written in fluid vignettes and marvelously acted. One forgets Eve Ensler is also a highly skilled performer.
Director Diane Paulus, known for coordinating a stage full of thespians, here illuminates the heart and intention of her sole actress as masterfully as she manages stagecraft. Gestures can shock or amuse. Manipulation is invisible. Pacing is perfect.
Jill Johnson is credited with additional movement, so well integrated, it’s organic.
Transitions are ably effected through splendid, symbiotic Lighting Design by Jen Schriever, infectious Sound Design by M.L. Dogg and Dam Lerner, and Finn Ross’s superbly artful and illustrative projections. Scenic and Costume Design by Myung Hee Cho are aesthetically appealing, original, and, at the finale exuberantly fitting.
If you’ve been living under a rock, Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” erupted Off Broadway in 1996, then spread worldwide establishing a new standard for frank discussion of women’s sexuality. It helped birth the anti-violence organization V-Day and then a sanctuary for rape victims in the Congo called City of Joy. Her memoir In the Body of the World was released on April 30, 2013.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
In The Body of The World Written and Performed by Eve Ensler
Directed by Diane Paulus
City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th Street