BWW REVIEW: Ensler Premieres IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD at A.R.T.
Written and performed by Eve Ensler; directed by Diane Paulus; set and costume design, Myung Hee Cho; lighting design, Jen Schriever; sound design, M.L. Dogg; projection design, Finn Ross; movement, Jill Johnson; associate director, Allegra Libonati; production stage manager, Carolyn Rae Bond
Performances and Tickets:
Now through May 29, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300.
At one point during her new one-woman play IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD, based on her highly acclaimed 2013 memoir of the same name, Eve Ensler repeats a phrase over and over to one of her doctors: "You're going to radiate my vagina. Radiate. My vagina. Radiate. My vagina. Radiate. My. Vagina." A pause, and then: "Do you know who I am?"
This nimble wit that allows the author of The Vagina Monologues to mock the cruel irony of being diagnosed with advanced uterine cancer is perhaps one of the greatest gifts this artist and activist could possess. It has helped her to overcome child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, a brutal marriage and the ravages of post-operative infections and chemotherapy. It has no doubt enabled her to return again and again to battle against climate change and to combat violence against women in the Congo and around the world. It now also may be a key in her ability to share her story, in the first person night after night, with audiences at the A.R.T. in Cambridge.
In IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD Ensler doesn't so much tell us of her journey through cancer as use it as a metaphor to dramatize the visceral connection between our bodies and our world. When her incision starts to ooze a dark fluid after being released from "Cancer Town" she experiences it as painfully as if it were the Gulf Oil Spill that coincidentally erupted from the ocean floor on the same day. When she is once again hospitalized and has nothing but time with which to ponder, she begins to meditate on the tree outside her window, making it her lifeline from her past to her future. Her physical vomiting equates with purging emotional poisons. Her nearness to death frees her to let go and forgive.
Ensler was diagnosed with stage III/IV uterine cancer in 2007, just as she began her work with rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rather than temporarily retreat from the horrors she was fighting there in order to concentrate on her own healing, she spoke with her contacts daily. Together they worked to help each other. They transformed their pain into power and chose to live and not merely survive. Today Ensler is cancer-free and the new women-run City of Joy is thriving. They are incontrovertibly connected. Perhaps one would not exist without the other.
IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD is a much more personal and complete work than last season's OPC at A.R.T. Here Ensler seamlessly weaves her individual experiences and recollections into the fabric of political theater. There is no lecturing, only truth telling, and the impact is often stunning.
The play could easily stand on its own, but there's no question that Ensler's own charismatic presence and willingness to bare her own body and soul make this A.R.T. production that much more electric. She brings the audience along with her every step of the way, enticing us to become a part of her body and her world. In fact, at the end of the play the audience is invited to tour the set, enjoying the tropical garden that represents a magnificent rebirth.
Despite, or perhaps because of, everything Ensler and the women of the Congo have been through, IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD ends on a celebration of healing and hope. It's nothing short of miraculous, the work she and her sisters have done. Their City of Joy is a refuge and an incubator for empowerment and inspiration around the world.
PHOTOS BY EVGENIA ELISEEVA: Eve Ensler in IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD