This is a rich evening of theater, the kind that matters because it takes up social and psychological problems that aren’t ordinarily addressed on our increasingly predictable stages.
In the Body of the World, written and performed by Eve Ensler. Directed by Diane Paulus. Staged by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, through May 29.
By Bill Marx
Playwright, actress, and activist Eve Ensler’s one-woman show is adapted, with satisfying if showbiz-ish skill, from her harrowing 2013 memoir. It is a courageous narrative about surviving uterine cancer, the battle to overcome a mortal illness serving as a means to knit together, in a powerful way, the personal and the political. The cancer that ravages Ensler’s body is always a concrete threat, but it also comes to serve as a metaphor for different kinds of toxicity, public as well as private: sexual abuse, memories of dysfunctional parents, the rape of African women, heinous torture, the mistreatment of refugees, our trashing of the Earth. By learning how to be a good patient, experiencing her body’s fragility and surprising strengths, Ensler draws connections between diseases individual and collective, examining the variable behavior of the medical establishment while discovering the power of love (as an expression of caretaking) along the way.
The memoir serves as a passionate wake-up call, not only in terms of seeing cancer (controversially) as an invitation to engage in self-knowledge and inner healing, but a demand that we stop sleepwalking through our lives. For example, we know that global warming has gone well beyond the early warning signs, that thousands of people around the world are already suffering, in some cases dying, that environmental change in this country must take place at a faster pace. (Read Naomi Klein’s disturbing This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate.) Ensler connects America’s flight from moral/social responsibility — what she sees as its global death wish — with her denial of the symptoms of her cancer for far too long. A passage in which she grapples with accepting chemotherapy articulates this sense of internal/external dissolution:
Cancer is essentially built into our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design — biologically, psychologically. We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in. Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line close to the water. Think poisoning the earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe. Think smoking, drugging. Think abusing our children who are meant to care for us in our old age, think mass raping women who carry the future in their bodies, think overeating or staving ourselves to look a certain way, think unprotected sex in the age of AIDS. We are a suicidal lot, propelled through self-eradication. And now, they were putting a tube in through my nose, down my throat, into my gut, as if I had poisoned myself.
We don’t encounter tragedy in today’s American theater, and that is a problem. Audiences pay to see characters healed of their negativity, often via a neat arc that leads to salvation. So it is understandable that Ensler’s stage adaptation backs away from her memoir’s visceral despair. The play In the Body of the World is less about the poisoning of the body and the world than a compelling story of survival, a shared experience that aims to be more uplifting than diagnostic. Director Diane Paulus and Ensler have chosen to emphasize the book’s comedy — wisely enough — but in their attempt to cut away the perverse darkness, to excise some of the interludes of desperate preachiness, they remove some of what made the book’s humor not only amusing, but cleansing. To be effective, Ensler’s self-deprecating jokiness needs to bounce off of the frightening, the horrific. Also, Paulus’ use of technology — there’s a large screen backdrop on which are projected images as well as the revelation of a real garden on stage — comes close at times to overwhelming Ensler and her trials and tribulations. The well-scribbed Disney-esque visuals of ‘magic and wonder” are a distraction from the grisly, yearning challenges of Ensler’s predicament.
But, aside from those caveats, Ensler dramatizes her experience with impressive passion and pizazz. In her memoir, she writes that “I needed to find the invisible underlying story that connected everything.” This desire for an essential narrative suggests, in part, why her 2014 satire O.P.C., which dealt with an important social issue (America’s criminal waste of food) was so unsatisfactory. Ensler can channel other voices (The Vagina Monologues), but she has trouble creating credible characters squaring off in conflict. Because In the Body of the World is an expression of herself and her ultimate concerns, the play is the perfect vehicle for her brand of heart-on-sleeve political polemic. She has crafted a version of own empathic voice, and it is an engaging and personable simulacrum. After a somewhat rough opening, she grows increasingly comfortable, displays some good comic timing and, when necessary, shifts emotional gears with aplomb.
I miss the nilhistic tang of the memoir, but this is a rich evening of theater, the kind that matters, in part because it takes up social and psychological problems that aren’t ordinarily addressed on our increasingly predictable stages. Following the lead of TV Cable News programming, Boston’s theater companies (when not knee deep in escapism) are fixated on examining issues of identity, pluralism, marginality, and diversity. Important issues, of course, but this approach seems to displace attention from various more troubling material dilemmas, matters that are (unsurprisingly) more challenging to the corporate powers-that-be, such as global warming, the accelerating rate of species extinction, and the culture of poverty.
I am not suggesting that scripts should be filled with didactic scolding, but proposing that our theater (via satire, tragedy, comedy, farce, melodrama) push easy fables of empowerment aside and grapple with the kind of elemental question that Ensler asks in her memoir and in this play: Why are we not acting on what we know is killing us and others? Is it habit, indifference, selfishness, fear of the truth, despair, addiction to consumer comforts, hostility to life itself? If the clashing responses a playwright comes up with don’t provoke us, make us think, fill us with horror, than he or she has not gone deep enough. To its credit, In the Body of the World points in the right direction.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.