Parts of 'The Vagina Monologues' writer and activist's latest play are hard to hear, even as they are essential listening
If it comes back… we can radiate your vagina.
Faced with that medical opinion, Eve Ensler can only ask her oncologist, “Do you have any idea who I am?”
Ensler is, famously, the author of the theatrical game-changer The Vagina Monologues (1996), for which she curated the intimate stories of a wide range of women. Now, in a new one-person show based on her 2013 memoir, Ensler is telling her own story of living through advanced cancer, and of spending time with rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is smart, funny, mostly fearless, empathetic — an engaging if sometimes tangent-plagued raconteur. That goes a long way, because parts of In the Body of the World are hard to hear, even as they are essential listening.
She begins with a quiet, if startling idea (startling, that is, coming from this champion of women): “A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place.” One can accept or reject the notion that a woman alone in her body is not enough to feel at home, that she is somehow dis-placed. But this is Ensler’s experience: Sexually abused by her father, unprotected by her mother, she says that from a young age she was “exiled” from her body, and has long been “trying to find a way back.” Attempts included “anorexia, promiscuity, performance art.”
On the success of The Vagina Monologues she built a movement called V-Day and traveled the world turning attention on violence against women. In 2007 she arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where militias used rape as a battlefield tactic. Here, Ensler would help found City of Joy, a recovery facility for survivors. But just as the center was to open in 2010, Ensler learned that she had a tumor in her uterus and that the cancer had spread.
As anyone might, Ensler tries to answer the unanswerable: Why? She’s a vegetarian – did too much tofu cause her cancer? she wonders. Maraschino cherries? Chernobyl? Good reviews? Bad reviews? She grasps for connections to make sense of it all.
At best, those connections can be poetic: pus flooding her body when she suffers an infection is like BP oil pouring at that very moment into the Gulf of Mexico; surgery to remove what she calls “my mother parts” bisects Ensler’s belly button, and her actual mother suddenly takes ill. At worst, the symbolism feels fraught: She links a moment when she cannot stop vomiting (mercifully, this is just mimed) with a spiritual need to expunge something she can’t name — until she bears witness to the most unimaginable atrocities inflicted by militia men on Congolese women and girls. As awful as cancer and cancer treatment are, they cannot reasonably compare to the inhumanity of systemic rape (and worse). Ensler doesn’t pretend otherwise, yet In The Body of the World hinges dramatically on those connections.
Forty years after Susan Sontag sought in Illness as Metaphor to detangle the stories we tell about cancer from the reality of the disease, Ensler weaves a knotty tapestry from disparate threads: sickness in a single woman, sickness in the world. If more of us saw what was happening in the Congo, perhaps we, too, might never stop puking. But sometimes a woman throws up because she’s still recovering from a surgery that removed a shocking number of organs, and she maybe shouldn’t have eaten that grand slam breakfast on her first morning out of the Mayo Clinic.
With a piece this intimately personal and politically significant, it feels churlish to take Ensler to task for stylistic shortcomings. Yes, the show is a mishmash of worthy concerns. But director Diane Paulus (Waitress and the Tony-winning Hair revival, among others) is comfortable with chaos, and helpfully reigns in the tangents, presenting each segment in a well-defined space. The set (Myung Hee Cho is the scenic designer) includes a beautiful but underutilized evocation of the Congolese jungle. In an echo of Ensler’s throw-it-all-in storytelling, the suggestion of African flora is dominated by a gold Asian Buddha statue (Ensler is a practicing Buddhist). Why? Why not. She’s a big proponent of do what feels good, and to that end has the audience, at one point, out of its seats and dancing on command.
As in The Vagina Monologues, Ensler is earnest about discussing that which is rarely discussed, but also allows that sometimes you have to laugh. What else to make of a visit from a hospital worker who is brought in to teach the patient with reconstructed bowels how to pass gas again. Ensler details her encounter with an extremely compassionate fart specialist named Cindy and, after explaining what this therapy entails, she adds with elegant timing: “By the way, Cindy is a volunteer.” There may be much to despair over in the world today, but there is also, Ensler reminds us, immeasurable good. “If anything has kept my faith in humans,” she says, “it is the Cindys.” B