As Eve Ensler received treatment for uterine cancer, she reacted particularly strongly to one medical suggestion: “Radiate my vagina. Radiate my vagina. Do you have any idea who I am? Do you have any fucking sense of irony?”
Ensler is most famous, of course, as the creator of The Vagina Monologues (translated into 48 languages, performed in 140 countries and counting) and founder of the global anti- female-violence movements V-Day and One Billion Rising.
Visually, there are two big reveals in Ensler’s 90-minute one-woman play, In the Body of the World, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, adapted from her memoir of the same name. They are both liberating moments for two very different reasons, connected by the notion of opening up, exposure, and experiencing a new sense of self and space. Myung Hee Cho, the show’s designer, has a big surprise for you.
If this sounds a mite hippy-dippy, you can also blame 90 minutes spent with Ensler, who speaks as you might expect a proud proponent of shamans and chanting and Buddha statues would, alongside her more sharply worded confession and passion.
She is alone on a sparsely decorated stage scattered with furniture that includes a chaise that doubles as a hospital bed. Yet a whole world unfurls there, thanks to Diane Paulus’ inventive direction, lighting (Jen Schriever), and projections (Finn Ross).
Ensler brings both anger and wit to bear in her telling of two parallel stories: one of her experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment, and the other of her determination to help build the City of Joy, a sanctuary of healing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women of all ages have been raped in their multitudes.
Here Ensler met “an 8-year-old girl who couldn’t stop peeing on herself because huge men had shoved themselves inside her. I met an 80-year-old woman whose legs were broken and pulled out of their sockets because the soldiers pulled them over her head to rape her. There were hundreds of these stories. They all began to bleed together. The destruction of vaginas. The pillaging of minerals. The raping of the earth.”
Ensler’s invective is powerful because, as one of her doctors said at a recent post-show discussion, it connects many things: among them, cancer, rape as a weapon of war, personal trauma, her love of TAB, the presidency of Donald Trump, Charlie Rose’s misdemeanors.
Do all these connections make sense? No. Do they to Ensler? Clearly, volubly, yes.
There is one big difference between memoir and play: the terrifying and overshadowing presence of her father in the book as contrasted with his relative absence in the play. He is referred to in dark terms, for sure; she has a dream of him raping her. She refers to his alcoholism and his ability to make family members turn on each other.
But the horror of the abuse, the scale and terrible depth of it, is absent in the play. What she says about her mother’s failings is far more pronounced than what she says about her father’s.
Ensler wittily evokes Rochester, Minnesota, the “tumor town,” where the Mayo Clinic that treated her is situated. “The whole place is like one palliative care unit. The waitresses are grief counselors. They serve you hamburgers and hold your hand as you weep for your son, daughter, mother, father, wife, or husband. There are wig stores on every corner.”
There is the moment when “the most handsome doctor in the world” comes to examine her ass. Dr. Handsome’s real name is Eric J. Dozois, and he is just as handsome in real life, as evidenced by his appearance at that recent post-show talk with Deb Rhodes and Sean Dowdy, Ensler’s other doctors. (Respectful programming note: They’re attractive, too!)
Ensler’s experience of illness and political engagement feel authentic because she treats both with such openness and apparent honesty.
Just as the women of Congo turn their pain into power, as Ensler puts it, so does she. “Congo threw me into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced what I felt sure was the beginning of the end.”
As she undergoes her first surgical procedure she imagines the women of the Congo. Nine hours later, she lists what is newly missing from her body: “a rectum, sections of colon, my uterus, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, my vagina—a little bit of it. 70 nodes—what the fuck is a node? Here’s what’s new: a rectum made out of my colon, a stoma, a red gooey nipple now magically outside my body, directing my poop into a temporary ileostomy bag.”
Ensler mulls the meaning of hysteria—both its misogynistic roots, and what the election of Trump has meant and done to so many. She wonders why cancer came to her body. “Was it tofu? I ate a lot of fucking tofu. Was it failing at marriage? Twice? Was it talking too much about vaginas? Was it worry every day for 56 years that I wasn’t good enough? Lawn pesticides? Chernobyl? It traveled far. Was it my father dying slowly and never bothering to say good-bye? Was it bad reviews? Good reviews? Being reviewed?” Could it have been her love of TAB?
The questions, the self-interrogation, the connectivity, is relentless; and then there is more awful body news just as the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolds on TV. As she sees it, there is poison flooding into the Gulf of Mexico and also infecting her body.
The next surgery is so awful and invasive she plans her own “dull and uninspired” funeral. The next stay in the hospital leads her to think about trees, particularly the beautiful one outside her window, and how it redeems her onetime hate of them as the country dweller moving to the city. In the hospital room a Hare Krishna celebration kicks off, healers and all.
Those who have undergone chemo, or had a loved one undergo it, may take slight issue with her welcoming of it as an “empathetic warrior” as her therapist recommends she does, dealing not just with her literal cancer, but emotional cancer too.
But cancer, suffering from it, treating it, living with it, is as intensely individual as it is commonly experienced, and the honesty of Ensler’s voice is unflinching even if you balk at the passage in the play where she chooses to berate her mother, as the latter lay dying, for her failures and shortcomings. (For Ensler, a mother holding a child symbolizes a sense of essential sense of place in the world.)
The strength of the play, the heart of it—a great personal and political roar of pain, resistance, fear, recovery, and strength—also operates as a flaw. Who are all the people she mentions? She knows them, we don’t. The tangled, personal and familial relationships could use more explication, particularly—if you have read her book—that strange absence of her father and what he did.
Ensler knows her own story well, obviously; the theatregoer may not. She either assumes we do, or that, swept up by her passion, we will overlook the omissions and biographical mysteries.
The greatest invisible walk-on comes from Cindy, the Mayo’s volunteer “fart deliverer,” there to help patients poop and fart again after surgery. “Eve, farts are music to my ears,” Cindy tells her. “I welcome farts. That’s why I’m here. Do not be embarrassed. Give me your fart.”
How you respond to this will depend on how you respond to a deeply confessional monologue, delivered at a heartfelt gallop. The three doctors, in their post-show talk, laughed as they recalled Ensler’s chanting and shamans at the Mayo, and they were also moved and inspired by her determination, commitment, energy, and will to live.
At the end, the play’s second striking visual unfolds, transforming it into its own piece of immersive theater. Right there in front of you is a piece of accessible, curious magic.
That might also sum up 90 minutes spent with Eve Ensler.
In the Body of the World is at New York City Center, Stage I until March 25. Book tickets here.