Eve Ensler in ‘In the Body of the World.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Eve Ensler no longer has a uterus. Nor does she have a rectum, cervix, ovaries, a portion of her colon or fallopian tubes. This is the result of a particularly nasty battle with cancer, which threw the Tony Award-winning actress and activist into an unanticipated tailspin when a massive tumor was discovered growing in her body in 2010. It is a list that she rattles unapologetically in In the Body of the World, Ensler’s new one-woman play that uses her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery as a framework to explore her connection to the world.
But what Ensler does have is a brilliant wit, an unflinching determination to stand up for humanitarian causes (particularly those involving women but I imagine she’s got a mental soapbox on which she could intelligently stand on any number of social issues), a terrific sense of humor, a gift for the dramatic, and the ability to command an audience for 90 minutes.
Ensler has never shied away from body parts. The Vagina Monologues, which premiered at HERE then transferred to the West Side Theatre for a limited Off-Broadway run, has had its critics for what some might say is a gender normative perspective or lack of clitoral references, but one can’t deny its impact in a much larger movement to end violence against women and girls on a global scale.
The play’s creation impacted Ensler so deeply that she established V-Day, an activist hub to address these ongoing issues domestically and abroad, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she was invited by Dr. Denis Mukwege to research a firsthand account of the atrocities faced among her people.
These are but a few of the touch points that Ensler revisits as she explores the shifting relationship with her body in a world that suddenly feels like a ticking time bomb. She speaks of the dignity—or lack of dignity—that she encounters in some of our most highly lauded medical institutions. She challenges the very definition of “uterus,” from the Greek cognate “hysteria” and defiantly claims who wouldn’t be hysterical in our world of racial crimes, immigration policies, post-hurricane aftermath and the like.
You might think the litany of atrocities is uttered for shock value, but it’s not the fact that they’re said, rather the fact that they’ve happened in the first place. Ensler’s juxtaposes her own physical trauma as her body temporarily rejects its digestive reconstruction with that of Angelique, a Congolese woman forced to witness and participate in the torture of a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Her recount is so terrifying that an audience member instinctively shouted, “Oh my God,” as if we had all watched the Twin Towers tumble into a pile of rubble and smoke. Such are the atrocities of war and it doesn’t matter if it’s on domestic or international soil.
Ensler, with the help of thoughtful direction by Diane Paulus, knows how to craft a story. Where there is darkness there must be light, which she finds in revisiting her relationship with her sister Lu, who re-enters her life as a caregiver after years of estrangement. She finds humor in remembering her fifth-grade classroom division and the chemo infusion suite, “which makes it sound like some high-end tea salon or aromatherapy spa. It is not.” So, too, does she get the last laugh on the “fart floor” at the Mayo Clinic.
Motherhood also ripples through Ensler’s prose, as she faces her mother’s mortality simultaneous to her own. A spectacular reveal by scenic designer Myung Hee Cho offers a final flourish to In the Body of the World: a physical culmination of Ensler’s emotionally charged journey within and beyond the confines of her own body.
In the Body of the World
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th Street
Through March 25
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. He is also a cancer survivor.