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It doesn’t seem surprising that Eve Ensler, who made vaginas the central theme of her most famous one-person play, returns to the body, her uterus in particular, for her latest piece. Based on her memoir, In the Body of the World describes her experiences being treated for uterine cancer, with all its attendant bodily degradations. Interwoven into the monologue are segments dealing with atrocities committed on women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Ensler sought to battle with the City of Joy project that she co-founded.
It all makes for a harrowing evening, alleviated by the writer-perfomer’s frequent doses of mordant humor. Unfortunately, the evening also comes off as self-indulgent, lacking the thematic depth that would elevate it into something more than an account of personal suffering.
If this show is any indication, Ensler has probably never read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which decried that very concept. For Ensler, illness is nothing but metaphor, as illustrated by her comparison of a post-surgery infection to the Gulf oil spill; her reference to a “rock and roll surgeon who treats my body like some beat-up practice guitar”; and a description of an infusion center as “my rain forest.”
To be fair, it would seem those around her were also indulging in metaphors, such as the nurse who tells her to “welcome chemo as an empathetic warrior” that will “purge the badness that was projected onto you but was never yours.” If the chemo didn’t make Ensler nauseous, that comment certainly should have.
The piece is more effective when it strains less for poeticism and focuses more on the pungently funny details of her travails. Those include her treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, a city she calls “Cancer Town” that has “wig shops on every corner.” She also ponders how she developed cancer, wondering if it was caused by the large amounts of Tab she drank after giving up booze.
The surgery Ensler underwent was extensive, radically reconfiguring various parts of her body. “I never knew the difference between my rectum and my anus,” she comments, before asking the audience, “Do you?” One of the most darkly funny moments stems from her doctor telling her that if the cancer comes back, they would have to radiate her vagina.
“Radiate my vagina? Radiate my vagina?! Do you have any idea who I am?!” Ensler responds. “Do you have any fucking sense of irony?!”
At times the piece, in which Ensler bares herself physically as well as emotionally, feels like an extended therapy session. She discusses her troubled relationship with her mother, and her loving one with her adopted son (she doesn’t mention that it is actor Dylan McDermott, her ex-husband’s son from his first marriage). In light of the mostly personal content, the segments dealing with the Congo, including disturbingly graphic accounts of such abominations as forced cannibalism, feel awkwardly shoehorned in.
The stylish direction by Diane Paulus (Waitress, Pippin) features extensive use of visually arresting projections that effectively complement the text. But it almost seems too slick at times, with a stunning climactic set reveal coming across as more elaborate than necessary. All the gussied-up theatrics ironically serve to reveal Ensler’s actorish weaknesses as a performer.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that In the Body of the World would have been more effective as a simple lecture, shorn of the affectations that make this incarnation feel like more of an exercise in self-indulgence than the shattering experience it clearly was for the writer-performer and is intended to be for the audience.
Venue: City Center Stage I, New York
Performer-writer: Eve Ensler
Director: Diane Paulus
Set and costume designer: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Sound designers: M.L. Dogg, Sam Lerner
Projection designer: Finn Ross
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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