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Theatre in Review: In the Body of the World (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Eve Ensler. Photo: Joan Marcus

"I have been exiled from my body," says Eve Ensler at the top of her latest theatrical confessional, a line that certainly gets one's attention. It's also the first articulation of a thesis that many will find deeply distressing -- a strange irony, since Ensler, in all of her works, is all about uplift. You could call her the last Transcendentalist, finding a universal meaning in everything that happens to her, no matter how trivial. The events of In the Body of the World are most certainly not trivial, and I hasten to add that, in a way, this solo show is beyond criticism, for it presents the details of Ensler's harrowing, if ultimately successful, struggle against uterine cancer. The lady has been through hell, and one can only admire her strength and gallantry in facing down a terrible illness -- and enduring the often equally terrible treatments -- while continuing to work for the good of other women who have undergone unimaginable suffering. And yet I can't escape the nagging feeling that Ensler, with all the goodwill in the world, has created a piece that is profoundly unhelpful.

Ensler, as always, has uncanny descriptive powers and an eye for the outrageous, telling detail, often informed by her oddball sense of humor. Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic, is, she says, "cancer town." She adds, "The whole place is like one palliative care unit. The waitresses are grief counselors. They serve you hamburgers and hold your hand as you weep for your son, daughter, mother, father, wife, or husband. There are wig stores on every corner." As she is being prepared for surgery, she admits to feeling like Gary Gilmore, the convicted murderer memorialized in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, as he is being prepared for execution. Reviewing her life, looking for possible causes of her disease, she wonders if she overindulged in Tab when she first got sober, then muses that maybe it's all due to "Shirley Temples -- the red dye number two cherries in the pretend cocktail ordered for me by my sophisticated, handsome country-club alcoholic father." So many friends gather around, offering help, that, when she goes for her first treatment, she says, "I arrive with a posse. It's like crowd chemo. There are way too many people and not enough chairs and we are causing a stir." And you have to admire anyone who can hold on to a sense of the absurd in the midst of it all: When a doctor prescribes radiation treatment for her vagina, the author of The Vagina Monologues blurts out, "Have you no fucking sense of irony?"

The piece is also distinguished by passages that vividly detail her treatment, among them the horrors of surgery (the list of organs removed is, to say the least, startling) and the ghastly complications that occur when the colostomy bags -- one for regular waste, the other for the pus produced by an internal abscess -- burst. At these times, her words are precise and powerful, an unsentimental account of her body breaking down, leaving her feeling helpless. Yet she never misses the daily phone calls to her associate in the Congo, trying to move along the construction of the City of Joy, a facility where women who have been subjected to savage rapes and other forms of abuse can find physical and psychological healing. (It will not be lost on some in the audience that Ensler's piece has been staged in the same room as Ruined, Lynn Nottage's wallop of a play about abused women in war-torn Congo.) In a quietly stunning moment, she recalls having her head shaved -- doing away with the Louise Brooks bob that had become part of her identity -- before starting chemotherapy; she then removes her wig, revealing the buzz cut beneath it. It may be the most shockingly intimate moment of all.

Where In the Body of the World goes awry is in the way Ensler compulsively merges her suffering with that of the entire planet, trying to give it all sorts of personal and political significance. She spends whole afternoons watching live footage on her laptop of a certain environmental disaster, adding, "At Sloan Kettering in New York they show it to me on the CAT scan screen: a huge pool of blackness spreading inside me, the same day as the Gulf oil spill. Now, somehow the poisoned Gulf of Mexico is inside me." Talking to herself, trying to find a positive point of view, she tells herself that maybe "this cancer was your teacher." Her therapist friend, Sue, who apparently -- in one of many revelations brought up without explication -- helped Ensler recall her father's abuse of her, says, "The chemo is not for you, Eve. It is for the cancer, for all the past crimes, it's for your father, it's for the rapists, it's for the perpetrators. You're going to poison them now and they are never coming back."

Furthermore, Ensler, who alludes to having suffered all sorts of ill-treatment at the hands of men, wonders about her tumor, asking, "Was I making a trauma baby? A flesh creature birthed out of the secrets of brutality? Each blood vessel a ribbon of story told to me by a woman suffering somewhere in the world?" Ultimately, she concludes, "Having cancer was the moment I was forced to let go of everything insignificant, to release the past and be burned down to essential matter." This constant linking of physical illness with psychological and emotional trauma is a tricky, dangerous thing; at times, it seems to teeter on the edge of Christian Science or some other half-baked philosophy. (Ensler is not religious, although she prays to the Hindu deity Kali to get her through chemotherapy.) It can, unchecked, also lead to a blame-the-patient mentality; after all, if you're sick, it must mean you haven't dealt with your personal issues, right? After a while, Ensler's determination to see her suffering as a vast, enveloping metaphor for all forms of violence against women, her need to merge her illness with the ills of the world, comes off as weirdly grandiose. Susan Sontag, author of Illness as Metaphor, must be turning in her grave; if she were alive, surely she would give Ensler a good shake and tell her to cut it out.

Furthermore, Ensler is such a magpie, picking up bits of information from here, there, and everywhere, and dropping so many provocative remarks in passing, that one hardly knows how to respond to this cascade of gags, atrocities, and advertisements for herself. Describing the party that a bunch of her friends threw in her room at Beth Israel, she makes the audience get up and jump around to music. (This is the piece's most off-putting Romper Room moment.) One minute, she is delivering cutesy routines about the sister who drives her crazy or tired gags about Matt Lauer and Kellyanne Conway, among other soft targets; the next, she is assaulting us with the ugly details of raped Congolese women suffering from fistulas. There's also a side visit to her chilly, unloving mother, who is also suffering from cancer as well as dementia. They share a tender moment, after which her mother has a nightmare in which someone comes to steal their hearts. "The next morning, they moved my mother to the cardiac unit because her heart has now become the problem. It is where we do not live that the dying comes." This relentless sharing of every last personal moment may be seen by some as brave. Then again, as Nora Ephron's mother once told her, "Everything is copy."

Ensler isn't really an actress, and she doesn't bring much, if any, nuance to her delivery; this is more like attending a TED Talk than seeing a play. Her speaking voice consists of a flat bark that works a dynamic range from conversational to howls of fury; a greater range of emotional expression would have helped dispel the feeling that she is giving a carefully rehearsed speech. In other respects, Diane Paulus' production is slickly professional. Myung Hee Cho's set design is, for most of the running time, a modest sitting room decorated in chinoiserie; in the piece's final moments, there is fairly remarkable coup de théâtre, which, unusually, the audience is invited to inspect after the show is over. Finn Ross' projection design includes some lovely shots of African forests; photos of Muhammad Ali (an Ensler hero) knocking out George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle; images of devastation of the Gulf; a CAT scan; and many views of the now-open City of Joy. Jen Schriever's lighting capably tracks the piece's mood shifts; she also brings plenty of dimension and texture to the final reveal of the set. The sound design, by M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner, includes a variety of world music selections in the pre-show, plus soothing hospital music, a closing door, a speeding car, rock guitar riffs, and birdsong.

In the Body of the World ends with Ensler happily restored to health, ready to keep on keeping on; certainly, her work with the City of Joy is an astonishing good deed, bringing hope to those who have been subjected to impossible cruelty. But I wonder if the message of this piece doesn't carry with it the seeds of damage. Those afflicted with a grave illness might not find it the optimal time to embark on an inner voyage of discovery, and they shouldn't be made to feel that they are impeding their cures if they fail to do so. In any case, even given the probability of a mind-body link, there is very little good -- and quite possibly a great deal of bad -- associated with freighting one's sickness with all sorts of metaphorical and spiritual dimensions. Sometimes a tumor really is just a tumor. -- David Barbour

(9 February 2018)

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