|IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD|
“How does she do this every night?” one patron said to her friend as we were exiting Eve Ensler’s riveting solo show “In the Body of the World” at Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center. It’s a legitimate query since one can only imagine the emotional toll it takes on the writer-performer to recount in exacting (and surprisingly humorous) detail the worst year of her life: the one where she battled stage 4 uterine cancer, faced the death of her elderly, uncaring mother, and mustered whatever little strength she had left to help guide “The City of Joy,” a seemingly impossible project in the Congo which was has been designed to educate and nurture thousands of women who survived unthinkable rape and mutilation.
But let’s face it: performers live to tell their stories, something that may explain, in part, both the “how” and “why” behind Ensler’s extraordinary act of courage. Yet, one of those things that’s most striking about “In the Body of the World” is that it rarely feels self-indulgent; the play is less an act of catharsis or even bragging than a continuation of Ensler’s two decades of activist work (which includes her seminal work, “The Vagina Monologues”.)
But it’s not just political activism that Ensler encourages here. Yes, she reminds us, first and foremost, to fight and acknowledge sexual abuse – whether perpetrated on oneself (her father, she says, molested her for much of her childhood) or another person. But we also come away aware just how “active” we must be in choosing our treatments if faced with a major medical crisis (not everyone would fire a surgeon from Memorial Sloan-Kettering), or how we must be “active” in trying to forgive or reconcile with family members long estranged. Ensler isn’t one to advocate forgetting the past, but she is a person so invested in life that we will want to follow her example on how to move forward through the direst of circumstances.
Wisely, “In the Body of the World,” which has been directed with enormous grace by the great Diane Paulus, doesn’t ask Ensler to follow in the footsteps of Sarah Jones or Anna Deavere Smith. She doesn’t switch accents when speaking in other’s voices; this is a more traditional monologue. But it’s never boring. Ensler is a master keeping an audience engaged, whether through passion or self-deprecation. Above all, there is an unmistakable air of honesty throughout the 80-minutes proceedings that keeps us listening.
In addition to Paulus, Ensler gets invaluable aid from the gifted set and costume designer Myung Che Hoo, whose Asian-accented set changes from Ensler’s loft to various hospital rooms with surprising ease, and projection designer Finn Ross, who has created some of the most magnificent, enveloping visuals I’ve ever seen in New York.
“Cancer threw me into the center of my body’s crisis. The 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,” Ensler tells us early in the show, even as we watch her onstage as living, breathing proof that her death did not come in such an untimely fashion. By the show’s end, however, we are doubly grateful that her premonition did not come to pass.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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