by Carol Rocamora
She’s back! Eve Ensler – playwright, performer, activist, force-of-nature – returns to the New York stages with a one-woman show that blows through the Manhattan Theatre Club like a tsunami. And what a wondrous storm it is!
Who can forget The Vagina Monologues (1996), Ensler’s ground-breaking, game-changing solo theatre piece about women and their bodies, widely considered one of the most important political theatre works of the decade? It’s since been published in 48 languages and performed world-wide in over 140 countries.
Now, with her new solo show, In the Body of the World, she’s expanded and deepened the themes of her seminal work, speaking with a fierce focus and a renewed purpose. As before, her agenda is two-fold. On the personal level, it’s a harrowing story of her own courageous struggle with Stage 4 cancer; on the political level, it’s the devastating story of abused women in the Congo today, and Ensler’s role in helping them to return to life. Miraculously, Ensler has conflated the stories – and her role in both is heroic.
In the first of this three-part, ninety-minute monologue (entitled “Somnabulence”), Ensler takes us through her traumatic time in “Tumor Town” (Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic), where she survived a nine-hour operation during which dozens of nodes were removed. In Part II, called “Burning,” she recounts the ordeal of chemotherapy at Sloane Kettering in New York.
But it’s never just about her. Using her diseased body as a metaphor, she speaks out against the Gulf Oil spill and environmental pollution. As for the mutilations that her body suffered from the operation (and from previous childhood abuse that she hints at), she conflates them with those that Congolese women have suffered from rape and horrific abuse during the Civil Wars of the past decades.
As Ensler suffers through her personal ordeal, her broader insights and connections continue to flow, one after the other – including a reunion with her own dying mother. “Maybe the cancer is your teacher,” one of her most trusted friends (a Congolese activist) writes to her.
Director Diane Paulus, whose American Repertory Theatre commissioned and premiered In the Body, delivers a production that brilliantly illuminates the landscape of this visionary work. Together with her inspired design team (sets/costumes by Myung Hee Cho, lighting by Jen Schriever, projections by Finn Ross), Paulus stages the narration in Ensler’s living room (dressed with Indian artifacts, reflecting Ensler’s spirituality), that becomes a hospital room, etc. At the same time, images are projected of the strife in the Congo on the upstage screen. As a result, the stage is ablaze with color and feeling, light and life.
In the final Part III, called “Second Wind,” Ensler triumphs over cancer in body and spirit (“Die, death!” the John Donne quote from Margaret Edson’s play Wit comes to mind.) At the same time, she tells us of her commitment to City of Joy, an extraordinary center that Ensler has cofounded in the Easter Congo, where abused women come together, heal, and reemerge into the community as leaders. To express this triumphant finale, Paulus and her designers treat us to an extraordinary theatrical tour de force (no spoiler), as Ensler invites the audience onto the stage to share in the celebration of healing and reaffirmation of life.
“Only Connect,” wrote the British novelist E. M. Forster. Ensler (like Anna Deavere Smith and the late Spalding Gray) are among the rare, gifted monologue artists who are able make those deep connections between the personal and the political, between illness and healing, between tragedy and rebirth – connections that bring hope for change in the world.
“In my family, they called me ‘hysterical’,” Ensler recounts. “It’s a word designed to make women feel insane for knowing what we know.” Today, Ensler’s is a voice that is heard world-wide. It’s a voice that will never be silenced.
Photos: Joan Marcus
In the Body of the World, written and performed by Eve Ensler, directed by Diane Paulus, at the Manhattan Theatre Club through March 25.