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In the Body of the World

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 


Eve EnslerEve Ensler.  Photo: Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 

"A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place. It says you are here. I have been exiled from my body. I was ejected at a young age and I got lost...For years I have been trying to find my way back to my body, and to the earth."  For writer Eve Ensler, the return back to her body and to the earth began with cancer. 

Ensler (The Vagina Monologues), centers her new play, In the Body of the World, in the core of her body.  Political and personal with an acid mix of intensity and humor, she intermingles her health experiences, the hospitals, the horrifying, frightening and degrading treatments, with the execrable attacks on women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A feminist and activist, Ensler had been working in the Congo to create a City of Joy, a sanctuary for raped and abused women, when she was diagnosed with Stage IV uterine cancer. 

"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."

She also sees her body mirrored in world events.  The similarities of the destruction of the earth and the carnage against women merge.  Looking at CAT images of her post-surgical infection, Ensler sees the black spill of infection like the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill.  Her rages spread against garbage disposal, the millions of guns in this country, white supremacists and the Koch Brothers. 

What did she do wrong to bring on her cancer and the subsequent degradations that the disease and its treatments brought to her body.  How did this happen?  She was a vegan but did she eat too much tofu?  She had stopped drinking and smoking years ago but consumed a lot of Tab. Why did she neglect the symptoms?  And what about her family, a mother who was self-centered until her own death, and an alcoholic, abusive father, the younger sister, Lu, whom she always resented but who was now at her side. Her family, her own childhood feeling like a misfit, must all have played some part in this illness. 

With precision and snaps of wit, she traces her painful journey through the Mayo Clinic (in "Tumor Town") and the other hospitals, all things medical from long needles to OR machinery.  She is grateful for "Dr. Handsome" and his few encouraging words, the miracle drug button ready for use after surgery, and Cindy, a volunteer, who helps her to fart after another reconstructive surgery.  

There is no straight road in this solo performance but Ensler is a likable, sharp-talking guide through her excruciating tour through hell.  Segments are quick, brash, honest although the numerous metaphors can be tiresome, like the therapist who advised her to "welcome chemo as an empathetic warrior" and the "rain forest" during surgery.  Ensler lightens her visions with black humor, and the journey with her is depressing, to be sure, but worth the visit.  At life's darkest moment, she found that, "The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do." 

Directed by Diane Paulus with set and costume design by Myung Hee Cho, the staging is theatrically spare with a chaise longue, wooden chair, ornamental storage unit, and carpet.  The finale set changes to a lush flourishing jungle, with a golden statue of the goddess Kara in the center.  Finn Ross adds decorative projections of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a metaphorical tree, African women in protest, and Muhammad Ali, who becomes Ensler's inspiration for battle.  Jen Schreiver's occasional house lights interchange with stage lighting and sound effects by M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner add to the journey.

Ensler was able to return to Africa for the opening of the City of Joy, accompanied by her adopted son and also her team from the Mayo Clinic. The next day Ensler brought her son into the jungle to look for gorillas and they spotted a family.  The gorilla mother sees the humans and folds her arms protectively around her baby.

Ensler repeats the play's first words, "A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place. It says you are here." She has returned to her body and her world.

She thanks the audience and invites them to come onstage and visit the forest, verdant with its sense of hope and life. 

In the Body of the World

City Center Stage I, New York

131 - West 55 Street, NYC

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club

Previews: Jan. 16, 2018.  Opening: Feb. 6, 2018. Closing: Mar. 25, 2018

Cast: Eve Ensler

Playwright: Eve Ensler

Director: Diane Paulus

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

February 2018

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