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In the Body of the World

Honestly I waited too long; I haven't been a good steward to my body. Somnolent is the word that keeps coming to me. Half awake, half asleep; knowing but refusing to know. We do this. Think climate change. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, 185 mile per hour winds, 20 foot surges, wildfires everywhere, murderous mudslides.
— Eve Ensler, pondering all the things she could blame for causing cancer, but winding up with the admitted oversight that turns her story into a wake-up call for so many other issues ignored too long.
In the Body of the World
It's been almost 20 years since Eve Ensler made her mark in the theatrical world with the The Vagina Monologues. As written and performed by Ensler, this take on the body part that dared not speak its name was highly entertaining but was also central to V-Day, a movement to end violence toward women. While that long-running and much produced solo had an enormous impact, women are still being violated, horrifically so in the Congo. And so, Ensler is back on stage with another solo.

In the Body of the World focuses on her latest cause which began in 2007 when she was invited to the Democratic Republic of Congo to observe the trauma that women were experiencing in that war-ravaged country. That visit resulted in her spearheading the establishment of a "City of Joy" where survivors of these unspeakable acts can heal and learn to love and be joyous again. Since her own body was assaulted by uterine cancer around then, this is also an intensely personal story. In fact, the play is an adaptation of the 2013 book generally tagged as her cancer memoir.

I'll admit that I approached In the Body of the World with some reservations. Granted, Eve Ensler's fight on behalf of women and girls everywhere is admirable and she's a charismatic enough performer to make me park my lack of enthusiasm for the solo genre at the door. But with so much grim news all around us these days, the double whammy of Ensler's personal cancer struggle and that of the Congolese rape victims sounded rather depressing.

Ensler doesn't soft pedal her trajectory from diagnosis through treatment, and some scenes detailing her own and the Congolese women's experiences are too painfully graphic. But then, she's still here, that Village of Joy does exist, and all these harrowing experiences are seasoned with poignant uplift touches like her new found closeness to her sister. There's also a good deal of humor. Best of all is the way she's managed to equate her own delayed resonse to her cancer symptoms with the whole world's failure to put off doing something about climate change in the face of obvious symptoms of looming disaster.

Under Diane Paulus's direction, this isn't one of those solo shows with a narrator sitting on a chair with no or minimal props, but one of the most theatrically effective examples of this genre. Though Ensler does often sit in a chair scenic designer Myung Hee Chu has provided some additional furniture for Ensler to deftly employ for her very energetic storytelling. One fourth wall breaking scene gets the audience on its feet to join her in an arms raised victory dance. While I find this kind of actor-audience interaction rather manipulative, there's no denying that it went over big here.

To add to the dramatic impact Ensler's black pants outfit (Myung Hee Chu again) supports her fearless self-exposure. There's a gut-wrenching visual surprise involving a haircut. Ms. Paulus makes meaningful use of all the designers, with Finn Ross's projections particularly echoing Ensler's reflections on the richness of our endangered physical world.

As Ensler has aptly made her personal story tie in with global issues, so her humor is at its best when topical. Thus she relieves the awful aftermath of a bad chemo treatment with pot but also thoughts of "Kellyanne Conway! The orange predator-in-chief. Charlie Rose naked." In a way, In the Body of the World brings The Vagina Monologues full circle. Women are still Ensler's prime audience, but as Les Gutman, my Vagina Monologues companion and its reviewer, observed, "Eve Ensler is far too serious about this project to be satisfied preaching to the converted. If she is to make her mark, her work must speak to a broader audience." (Les's review). I'm happy to report that there was a generous sprinkling of men at the performance of In the Body of the World that I attended.

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In the Body of the World
Written and performed by Eve Ensler
Directed by Diane Paulus
Scenic and costume design: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting: Jen Schriever
Sound: M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner
Projections: Finn Ross
Movement: Jill Johnson
Stage Manager: Katie Ailinger
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
New York City Center – Stage I 131 West 55th Street
From 1/16/18; opening 2/06/18; closing 3/25/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/03 press matinee

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