REVIEW: Eve Ensler’s “In the Body of the World”
There is nothing more personal than the body—our literal self—and yet, few things possess the power to be more mystifying, especially when afflicted with illness or disassociated by trauma.
This paradox lies at the heart of Eve Ensler’s new one-woman show, “In the Body of the World”, based on her eponymous 2013 memoir, which opened tonight at City Center Stage I in a Manhattan Theatre Club premiere of an American Repertory Theater production.
“In the Body of the World” is an exquisite poem of a solo performance that connects one woman’s journey with uterine cancer to the plight of women worldwide and the very devastation of our earth.
Brimming with her signature humor, rage, honesty, empathy, and serenity, Ms. Ensler—an acclaimed feminist artist and activist best known for creating and originally performing the international sensation “The Vagina Monologues” (1996) and founding V-Day—offers a deeply personal and human account of being gravely sick, using the story of that vicious slog as a lens for chronicling the experience of being a woman in this world, and, ultimately, a person both facing and dealing with trauma and death, finding her body, and connecting to our common humanity.
In her first return to the New York stage since 2004’s “The Good Body”—another show tackling “the body”, that time body image—Ms. Ensler proves, as if she needed to, why she remains among the most important and potent voices in American discourse.
Separated from her body as a child due to sexual abuse from her father and emotional distancing from her mother, Ms. Ensler tried “various routes to get back”, including “promiscuity, anorexia, performance art”, before traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007 at the invitation of Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege, and deciding to help the women there, ravaged by war and torture, victims of brutal gender-based violence and rape, create a sanctuary called “City of Joy”. Then cancer struck, and she was forced to confront and live in her own body in ways she never had before.
The sheer breadth of this show is breathtaking, its ambitious scope matched by perfected execution thanks to the genius and clarity of Ms. Ensler’s writing and the stunning acuity of director Diane Paulus (“Waitress”); watching their collaboration unfold is a masterclass in visual and aural resplendence, both emotional and tactile, and ultimately transcendent.
Through 80 minutes of monologue, at once crisp, funny, and devastating, Ms. Ensler describes the reality of surgery and recovery, sparing no detail, highlighting how little it takes to give patients dignity and paying tribute to the chronic underappreciation of health workers. She celebrates the gift of her friends and their myriad gifts, while rediscovering the lost sisterhood she shares with her younger sister, Lu, and reconciling the passing of her mother and the relationship they never had.
She describes the phenomenon of somatization (manifesting psychological stress as physical symptoms) common to abuse victims, the horror of chemotherapy, and the process of saying goodbye to the iconic “Louise Brooks bangs and bob” that were her “point”. All this while keeping in touch with her sisters in the Congo, keeping their sanctuary project on time, grounded by their resilience and determination, and riding her “second wind” back to health, back to her body, back to the world from the brink of death.
Hysteria, she says early on in the play, is “a word designed to make women feel insane for knowing what we know.” Ms. Ensler has an amazing ability to connect her personal experiences and sufferings to the world around her, to know what she knows, and bravely speak it.
“In the Body of the World” was one of the most gently cathartic and cleansing experiences I have shared in the theatre. It is easy, I suppose, to cabin Ms. Ensler as a feminist performer with an esoteric audience, but that assumption is made at one’s peril. This play is about our connection and responsibility to each other and to our world. There is nothing, literally, more universal than that.
Bottom Line: Eve Ensler’s “In the Body of the World” is an exquisite poem of a solo performance that connects one woman’s journey with uterine cancer to the plight of women worldwide and the very devastation of our earth. Crisp, funny, devastating, and transcendent, this play is a must see.
“In the Body of the World”
Manhattan Theatre Club
at City Center Stage I
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 80 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: February 6, 2018
Final Performance: March 25, 2018