By Stanford Friedman
There are two sorts of people on the planet. There are the even-stevens who experience mild success, balanced with minor disappointment. And there are those whose lives are a series of shockwaves, with giddy highs and horrendous lows. The playwright/actor/activist Eve Ensler is a poster child for the latter. Her breakout work, The Vagina Monologues, has been performed in 140 countries since its 1994 premiere. The New York Times called it, “probably the most important piece of political theater” of that decade. It inspired the highly successful V-Day activist movement to stop violence against women. Ensler racked up awards and fellowships throughout the early 2000’s. And then, in 2010, a tumor all but stole away her life.
Adapted from her 2013 memoir of the same name, In The Body of The World is an unflinching survivor’s tale about cancer and rape. To be precise, it is about how cancer is a kind of rape, just as rape can be a type of cancer. Bearing her scars, figuratively and literally, Ensler explores how the disease, and its poisonous treatments, violated her body. We hear a pretty funny description of Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic, where the town’s whole economy seems to be based around accommodating the unwell. Then we hear many decidedly unfunny accounts of surgical procedures, chemotherapy and the plight of “being exiled from my body.” If that is not dark enough, Ensler entwines these observations with the stories she heard in her trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo where, beginning in 2007, she learned the grizzly details of how rape and torture has plagued the country in its many years of civil warfare. Leave the kids at home.
In synthesizing all of this pain, Ensler finds solace, as well as compelling dramatic tension, in the natural world. Tying one’s body to nature is a conceit as ancient as the bible, still it somehow never gets old. Trees, which she grew sick of in her Vermont college days, come back to bring her peace from outside a hospital window, trigger memories of her Africa trips and even medically contribute to her recovery, with one of her medicines derived from the needles of a Yew tree. Equally effective is her meditation on the coincidence of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill coinciding with her post-surgery infection, “a huge pool of blackness spreading inside me.” Creating a sense of place is vital to her metaphors and Ensler, as directed by Diane Paulus, is expert at it, here using just a chair and a chaise lounge, with added support from the production’s fine sound design (Myung Hee Cho) and screen projections (Finn Ross). The design team also throws in a visually stunning coup de théâtre to transport us at evening’s end.
So compelling is this cancer-Congo-nature triangle, the show sinks a little whenever Ensler steps outside of it. She cannot help but throw some political barbs, but her tribulations make even Trump seem inconsequential. She also feels the need to disrupt her narrative, sometimes distractingly bringing up the house lights, other times rattling off lists of items like the possible reasons for her disease (tofu? failing at marriage?) or things not to think about during chemo (Charlie Rose naked). Ensler also has some formidable issues with her late mother. Here she compresses them into a single scene so loaded that they cry out for a play of their own. Having seemingly found the way back from her body’s exile, it will be intriguing to see where she travels next.
In the Body of the World – Written and performed by Eve Ensler, directed by Diane Paulus.
Myung Hee Cho (scenic and costume design), Jen Schriever (lighting design), M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner (sound design), Jill Johnson (movement), and Finn Ross (projections), Katie Ailinger (production stage manager). An American Repertory Theater production, Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212, https://www.nycitycenter.org/pdps/in-the-body-of-the-world/. Running time: 80 minutes.