Saturday, February 10, 2018

156 (2017-2018): Review: IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD (seen February 9, 2017)

“Yes, Vagina. There is an Eve Ensler”

Eve Ensler, the actress-playwright-activist, whose extraordinarily popular solo piece, 1996’s The Vagina Monologues, may have done as much for female genitalia (and opposition to violence against women) as Martin Luther King, Jr., did for civil rights, has created another one-woman starrer with In the Body of the World. It’s not likely, though, that this new work—produced by the MTC in the City Center’s Stage 1—will enjoy the worldwide audience of her most famous play, which has been published in 48 languages and performed in close to 150 countries.
Eve Ensler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Not that Ensler’s left the vagina behind. It’s just that In the Body of the World—adapted from Ensler’s 2013 memoir of the same name and originally staged at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre—is decidedly autobiographical and that particular body part is only one of the too many other things the play wants to discuss.
Eve Ensler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In the Body also requires the presence of this daring artist’s own body—from her shaved head (don’t let that silken Louise Brooks helmet fool you) to both her surgical and psychological scars—to make its searingly poignant and satirically comic points.

The pixyish, youthful-looking, 64-year-old Ensler has had quite a life, and you’ll find out a lot about it in her rambling, scary, funny, informative, moving, occasionally grisly, but scattershot docudrama—three parts divided into 27 scenes—whose centerpiece is her battle with uterine cancer.
Eve Ensler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ensler, disarmingly forthright on several levels—she doesn’t hesitate to expose her breasts when changing into a hospital gown—uses powerfully descriptive words to make us privy to her symptoms and procedures, from chemo to surgery (the Mayo Clinic and Sloan Kettering figure heavily); the difference between caring and careless doctors; the loving support she received from her sister; her experience with her once eye-catching, later cancer-ridden, dementia-plagued mom, and so on. Much is made of the mind-body connection in disease, including a brief lecture on “somatizing”, i.e., “To manifest psychological stress as physical symptoms.”
Eve Ensler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
We also hear about many private parts (not just biological ones) of Eve’s life, like her hippie days (she dons a bandanna for a lengthy period), her freewheeling life style of sex and drugs, her therapist’s advice on dealing with her father’s sexual abuse, her ecological concerns (the Gulf Oil spill becomes metaphorically connected to her illness), her feminist activism, particularly her work in fighting violence against women (some gut-wrenching/retching stuff here), and her commendable contributions toward helping Congolese women build the City of Joy.
Eve Ensler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The considerable grimness she describes is lessened somewhat by her aggressively spirited tone and the lighter, if you could call them that, elements in her story. There is, for example, her description of the uncompensated, totally dedicated woman whose specialty in treating patients is helping them to fart.

Cancer survivor stories, of course, have become increasingly common, both on the page and stage; there will be few spectators at Ensler’s performance who, if not victims themselves, don’t know someone whose experiences echo much of what they’ll hear. Initiated or not, many will find the cancer-related descriptions painful; things only get harder when hearing about Congolese soldiers’ behavior toward their victims. 

It’s understandable that Ensler would want to introduce some welcome wisecracks into the horrors—like those ripping Kellyanne Conway or our Pussy Grabber-in-Chief—but is it really necessary for us to be asked to rise so we can dance during a hospital room party?
Eve Ensler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A lot of effort has been put into making In the Body of the World more than just a frequently compelling, intermissionless, 90-minute narrative. While it could conceivably be done on a bare stage, considerable attention has been given to its physical representation, with Broadway superstar director Diane Paulus not only helping to elicit a wide range of emotional and humorous qualities from Ensler but also assembling a first-rate team to create a beautiful visual and auditory environment.

Myung Hee Cho—who designed Ensler’s attractive black ensemble of sleeveless top and tight slacks—has created a deceptively simple set showing only a chaise longue, an elegant Chinese chair, and an oriental chest of drawers topped by a cabinet whose lack of a back panel is revealed when its doors are opened.

Upstage is a neutral rear wall that makes abundant use of Finn Ross’s exquisite video projections of emotional signifiers, from trees, forests, and oceans whose water seems to lap at the stage floor, to images of the Gulf Coast disaster and Ali knocking out Foreman. Jen Schriever's sensitive lighting pulls it all together, while M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner’s sound design supplies mood-enhancing music in many modes.

The kicker, though, is the coup de théâtre that comes near the end, when—for reasons you’ll have to learn yourself—the stage transforms, as the curtains open wider and wider, into a luscious Asian garden, backed by a large golden idol, which the audience is invited to examine up close and personal. Gorgeous as it is, its decided positivity tends to overwhelm and distract from what’s come before.
“Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?”

Often, I’m very aware of how the strangers sitting next to me at a show are reacting. I may hear the audience laughing across the way or behind me, while the man or woman beside me is sitting stone-faced. Or I may notice sniffling while I myself am falling asleep. Since I often wonder how they feel about what we’ve both just experienced I’ve decided to simply ask them and record their reactions by giving the show an on-the-spot grade on the scale of 1-100. I begin this feature, “Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?,” with the reactions of two women, one who looked to be in her 20s, the other in her late 40s, both of them very active theatregoers, to In the Body of the World.

Their mutually agreed-upon grade: “around 70.”


New York City Center Stage 1
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through March 25