Perhaps you’d think it chutzpah that in “In The Body of the World,” the latest solo show by Eve Ensler, best known for “The Vagina Monologues,” she merges her story of her fight against uterine cancer with world crises such as mass rape in the Congo and the deadly oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe you’d be squeamish at her graphic storytelling of her illness, treatment and recovery, during which she literally bares her physical scars, and exposes her emotional ones, which are more disturbing. You could well disapprove of her self-defeating and dubious speculation about what might have caused her cancer – from tofu to Tab to bad reviews.
You could grapple with all these reactions to Eve Ensler and her show – I certainly did at one time or another during its 90 minutes – and still find “In The Body of the World” (as I did) eye-opening, entertaining, and one of the most satisfying works of theater so far this year.
With humor and passion and jaw-dropping candor, Eve Ensler riffs and rants (about various injustices), rhapsodizes (about trees) and rages (about uncaring doctors, about her parents, about…many things) – and in the process reveals Eve Ensler, take her or leave her. Adapted from her 2013 memoir of the same name, “In The Body of the World” presents a person with some less-than-admirable attitudes and experiences that many people wouldn’t share with their best friends, much less a paying audience. She hated her younger sister so much that she once “threw her under a chair and kicked her….I am sure it is why I became a feminist, to somehow right this wrong. The concept of sisterhood was at such odds with the almost homicidal competitiveness that lived in me.”
One could easily judge the playwright harshly for comparing the indignities and pain from her illness with those victimized by world-scale atrocities. But isn’t that what people do – make themselves the center of the universe, especially when they’re in pain? Besides, who better to give a pass for this than a woman who, after the success of “The Vagina Monologues” two decades ago, has traveled the world fighting those atrocities. When she talks about an 80-year-old woman and a eight-year-old girl who were brutally raped, she’s met them, and she helped build a sanctuary for them called City of Joy,in Bukavu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It was while planning to attend the opening of that center in 2010 that she received the diagnosis that she had a tumor in her uterus. (“Cancer threw me into the center of my body’s crisis,’ she says in the play. “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.”)
So much of what we glimpse about the life of this outcast turned activist is so fascinating. In high school she tried to “unionize all the unpopular girls” (It didn’t work.) She mentions in passing at one point that she was in Germany “where I went to join in the Berlin Wall coming down” and, at another, that she has boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali, who was her idol.
What makes “In The Body of The World” especially worthwhile is the production. Director Diane Paulus pulls out all the stops, in what could be a lesson in how to turn a monologue into a full-fledged play. The design team is first-rate — lighting design by Jen Schriever helps set the pace of the play and engage the audience, the projections by Finn Ross are state-of-the-art, the sound effects by M. L. Dogg and Sam Lerner are unusually effective, and above all the costume and set design by Myung Hee Cho offers a mixture of shocks and delights – much as Eve Ensler does.
In The Body of the World
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage 1
Written and performed by Eve Ensler; Directed by Diane Paulus
Lighting design by Jen Schriever, projections by Finn Ross, sound effects by M. L. Dogg and Sam Lerner, costume and set design by Myung Hee Cho
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
“In The Body of the World” runs through March 25, 2018