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In the Body of the World

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 6, 2018

Eve Ensler
Photo by Joan Marcus

Vulnerability doesn't come easily to Eve Ensler. Neither does holding back. The performance artist, activist, and author of The Vagina Monologues likes to be in control, and likes to share everything, even when she's sharing autobiographical moments of not being in control. Which In the Body of the World is packed with. Her new monologue at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 1, based on her 2013 memoir, recounts the two defining crises of her life over the past decade. One was attending to the raped and otherwise broken women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she worked to help build City of Joy, a refuge and treatment center for them. While there, in 2007, the other crisis occurred: She found out she had uterine cancer.

Doesn't sound like a million laughs, does it? Yet In the Body of the World, for all its harrowing memories and moments of pain, misery, and uncertainty, is surprisingly lively and even jocular in moments, a no-holds-barred sharing of one woman's story. Ensler tries, not altogether successfully, to merge the suffering of the Congo victims with her own, to find commonality in their humiliation and victory over it. But those women get pushed aside a lot, because she's so preoccupied with taking us to doctor's offices, hospitals, the Mayo Clinic, and her loft (designed, rather skimpily, by Myung Hee Cho) where she recuperates. We also get pre-cancer autobiography: an unhappy childhood with a harsh, abusive dad and a glamorous, distant mom; an adolescence as one of the least popular girls in high school; weed-infused college days; bad marriages; an adopted son only eight years her junior; a sister she long hated who helped nurse her and turned that enmity around. There's a lengthy section on fifth grade, of all things, because she was officially classified as one of the stupid kids and evidently never got over it. We know you're not stupid, Eve. She also riffs on current political bĂȘtes noires—the Kochs, Dreamer abuse, Trump, of course—probably because she knows most of this audience is on her side. And when she finally returns to Congo, at the last minute, there's a splendid coup de theatre—the set designer's, and it's so stunning that you may not notice how little it has to do with everything that preceded it.

She uses her hands a lot, possibly too much, and she indulges in rhetoric that feels affected—like repeatedly asking, "Did I tell you that . . . ?" when she knows damn well whether she told us or not. And at one point, non-fans of this sort of thing are hereby warned, you will be asked to get up and dance. Yet such is Ensler's conviction and persuasiveness that most of this reserved Manhattan Theatre Club audience, including me, got up. She has an uplifting and often riveting tale to tell, and, aided by Diane Paulus's focused direction, she tells it sharply and movingly.

Particularly affecting are descriptions of a good doctor, one who looked her in the eye and let her know he really cared and was "the handsomest doctor in the world," and a terrible one, who caused her excruciating pain and hardly said a word. (She reenacts this. Boy, can she scream.) She meditates entertainingly on denial—hers, while contemplating how this thing may have entered her body, and ours, for being aware of multiple global disasters but pushing them away. She comes up with ingenious analogies: The diagnosis happened almost simultaneously with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and she sees parallels. She notes that "uterus" and "hysteria" share a Greek root, and gets a lot of mileage out of that. And she takes some unexpected side trips. What's the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman bout doing in a show like this? You'll find out.

Ensler likes being up-front and confrontational, and likes shocking her audience. You'll see more of her body than you may want to, and though we can guess that that Louise Brooks bob of hers is a wig, it's an uncomfortable moment when it comes off. But that's not as shocking as her stories of what some of those Congo women endured, and she might have had an even stronger evening if we heard more about them.

What's there is pretty strong, though, and a testament to how our survival instincts can pull us through, aided by friends, other inspirational heroes (like Mama C, who runs City of Joy), and especially the anonymous little people, many of them volunteers, who toil in the trenches—Cindy, who helps Ensler fart when her colon has given out, true story, is an unsung superwoman. Autobiographical as In the Body of the World is, one can well envision Ensler releasing the rights and letting other women perform it. She can be guilty of self-overindulgence, and sometimes she tells us more than we want to know. But it's a story very much worth the telling.

In the Body of the World
Through March 25
Manhattan Theatre Club-Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street
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