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Like much of her body of work, Eve Ensler’s new play is messy. But fans of the playwright-activist will find much to engage with.
“In the Body of the World” is an American Repertory Theater commission, part of a three-show residency that began with the social commentary “O.P.C.” (which Ensler wrote but did not appear in) last season. The one-woman show runs at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center through May 29. It’s handsomely staged, sensitively directed, and by turns insightful, oblivious, empathetic, myopic, funny and deeply sad. At an evening performance this week, it seemed to keep a large audience fully enthralled.
On the one hand, Ensler’s extended residency at the A.R.T. is a coup for the Cambridge theater. Ensler, best known for “The Vagina Monologues,” is an internationally known activist and theater artist and, for some, a feminist heroine. On the other hand, this is the air in which the A.R.T. operates. The pairing of artistic director Diane Paulus (who helms this production) and Ensler is a dream team of much-admired female voices in contemporary theater.
“In the Body of the World” is an adaptation of Ensler’s 2013 memoir. Each centers on her cancer treatment of a few years previous, which she says led her to a new relationship with her own body.
Onstage here, she presents a very fine performance. Ensler is a gifted public speaker and comfortable in the spotlight, but that’s not the same thing as being an actress. In the straight-ahead opening scene, I worried that the play would amount to merely a long-form version of the TED Talk she gave on the same topic in 2010. Not so.
Paulus does an excellent job putting Ensler’s monologue on its feet, and creating a steady sense of forward momentum. Myung Hee Cho’s set invokes the author’s New York City loft apartment with just a few versatile pieces of furniture. As it transforms — through Jen Schriever’s lighting design, Finn Ross’s projections and some basic stagecraft — into a medical exam room, a hotel and, occasionally, the landscape of a dream, Ensler ably goes from tart humor to earnest heart-tugging to some uncomfortable moments of self-satisfaction.
Given the subject matter, it’s surprising how much sly humor laces the show. Here, Ensler uses the click of a morphine dispenser as a punch line; there, she finds extended moments of abrupt vulnerability. It’s a well-rounded performance from someone who knows how to hold an audience in the palm of her hand.
The loose theme is found in insights Ensler says she gained about the relationship between the mistreatment of women’s bodies and the mistreatment of the world’s ecology. Though ostensibly the point of the whole exercise, it’s here that things get wobbly. It’s a fascinating topic to bat around in conversation but a harder one to dramatize. This theme is stitched together with references to perceived connections between elements of her treatment and, for instance, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rather than evidence of uncanny serendipity or mystical insight, this comes off as a weird trivialization of catastrophe. “In the Body of the World” is stronger when examining the author’s experiences in treatment and how they affect her personal relationships, particularly with her sister and her mother — though, awkwardly, these scenes feel like digressions because of their lack of connection to the thematic frame.
Ensler received her cancer diagnosis while meeting with rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many of whom were abused by soldiers employing rape as a tactic of war. She offers fistfuls of facts about the human misery perpetrated there, sometimes bludgeoning the audience over the head with the info. (In the penultimate beat of the show, she offers an anecdote of such sickening evil that it’s nigh impossible for the audience to glide along from there to the play’s upbeat conclusion.)
In fusing violence against the planet with violence against women, she also claims her own place beside the traumatized women whose stories she tells — with the atrocities they’ve experienced amounting to another part of her own spiritual journey. The unavoidable question at play is whether Ensler’s experience of childhood sexual abuse and a harrowing treatment for uterine cancer entitles her to claim the misery of these Congolese women as her own, and reduce it to metaphor.
This is more explicit in the memoir from which the play is adapted, in which she describes her “Congo stigmata,” a fistula created in her rectum by cancer. “Essentially, the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo,” she writes there.
Those women may disagree.
“In The Body of the World” succeeds best when it dwells in the literal, and not the metaphorical, world. There, Ensler has the most to say.
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