note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Susan Daniels
“In the Body of the World,” commissioned by and running at American Repertory Theatre through May 29th, is brilliant, funny, and important. Based on her 2013 memoir, Ensler, best known for the award-winning play, “The Vagina Monologues,” and the creation of V-Day, commands the stage for 90 minutes, while digging deeply into her soul and revealing very graphic details about her brush with death.
Her journey as a cancer survivor might offer familiar landmarks to the thousands who have walked a similar path, but her poet’s lyricism and theatrical chops give her the tools to create a compelling form of ritual theater. During this odyssey, Ensler speaks about the callousness of some in the medical community, buffered by the respect offered by “the most handsome doctor in the world” . . . just prior to his conducting an examination of her private parts. She depicts the community of loving friends who offer support through this terrifying chapter. The long-lasting estrangement with her sister breaks new ground as the younger sibling takes care of Ensler, and both begin to appreciate -- and validate -- the other’s worth. The deeply buried resentments towards her father, who sexually molested her, and her emotionally unavailable mother, who did nothing to protect her, are recalled; and through therapy, along with chemo and radiation, Ensler burns away these life-long psychological injuries. As a result, she becomes more attuned to living within her body.
Though the narrative is laden with heavy topics, Ensler laces humor throughout the play -- often, laugh-out-loud funny. Her fluency with words is matched by her magnetic persona that bonds with the audience from the get-go.
Solidifying these attributes, Diane Paulus deftly directs the action, which includes Ensler’s New York City loft, the Congo, several hospital rooms as well as her mother’s death bed at her home in another state, where the playwright travels to, even though it was during her debilitating chemo treatments. As Ensler enacts these scenes and others, each transition seamlessly moves the action forward with the aid of the play’s talented collaborators: Myung Hee Cho’s set and costume design, Finn Ross’s projection design, Jen Schriever’s lighting design, M.L. Dogg’s sound design, and Jill Johnson’s movement, which has the 63-year-old Ensler burning through a lot of calories in a swirl of motion . . . although, sometimes, serenely meditating. At one point, the playwright/actress even moves furniture.
An internationally renowned feminist, Ensler received the stage III/IV uterine cancer diagnosis while working with women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who had been raped, tortured and traumatized, due to their country’s ongoing war. With the goal of creating a community -- City of Joy -- to help these Congolese women overcome the violence directed against them, Ensler, ever the activist, takes it one step further. She makes the personal universal by connecting the violence against women to the damage committed upon the earth. In provocative and dramatic terms she throws out a challenge: To genuinely inhabit our bodies and help repair the planet.
Truly, every woman owes it to herself to see this play. And anyone who has ever loved someone or cares about Life or ponders about her place in this world deserves to experience Eve’s story. AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE @ Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA 1(617)547-8300