The Vagina Monologues

Refreshing in its unpretentious honesty, sometimes potent in exposing unnecessary shame and horrid violence and filled with a cathartic humor, Eve Ensler's compilation of monologues about female genitalia receives successfully joyful presentation at the Canon. Directed by Joe Mantello, play allows a series of actresses to perform Ensler's material, three at a time, with a changing cast every three weeks.

With:
With: Julie Kavner, Julianna Margulies, Rosie Perez.

Refreshing in its unpretentious honesty, sometimes potent in exposing unnecessary shame and horrid violence and filled with a cathartic humor, Eve Ensler’s compilation of monologues about female genitalia receives successfully joyful presentation at the Canon. Directed by Joe Mantello, play allows a series of actresses to perform Ensler’s material, three at a time, with a changing cast every three weeks. It’s a formula that’s been working in New York, and no wonder.

Julie Kavner, Julianna Margulies and Rosie Perez star until Oct. 29, to be followed by Carol Kane, Phylicia Rashad and Kimberly Williams, with future casts to be announced. The flexibility is workable for a couple of reasons. First, the material doesn’t need to be fully memorized — Mantello’s smartly unburdened staging simply has the three actresses, dressed in black, sitting on stools in front of microphones, cue cards in hand if needed. Very little rehearsal is required, which makes it possible for busy film and TV actresses to commit to a brief run.

Secondly, Ensler didn’t write the monologues themselves verbatim from the interviews, the way, for example, Anna Deveare Smith does, or Moises Kaufman did with his “Laramie Project.”

Instead, the works are “dedicated” to the individuals who inspired them, more crafted performance pieces than transcriptions. The actresses, therefore, are not usually acting a particular person per se, so there’s plenty of room for individual interpretation. Different actors will certainly find very different layers in the material, and even perform different monologues, making a theatergoer’s return for a second performance worthwhile.

With this particular trio, Perez clearly becomes the audience favorite.

She proves a surprisingly vivid storyteller and captures the dramatic build of her monologues to wonderful effect, particularly the piece in which a woman discovers the beauty of her own organ from a male lover, who’s a “connoisseur of vaginas.” She also simulates an orgasm, leading to some orgasmic laughter from the crowd.

Kavner sits in the center, listening and enjoying the others’ performances and establishing a nice rapport with the audience. Kavner, best known for her voiceover work, delivers one of the more poignant pieces, called “The Flood,” where an aging woman tells of how she’s lived her life ashamed of her … “down there.” This is one of the monologues that can be done very differently, and Kavner brings to it a light touch that rings true.

Margulies takes on most of the more earnest pieces, like a Bosnian rape victim, but gets to top Perez with a simulated triple orgasm — “Every night,” Kavner adds, comically envious. Sometimes Margulies seems to be reveling a bit too much in the poetic qualities rather than making the words seem genuine, but she’s a striking presence and a gifted performer.

There’s no question the comedy here is more effectively done than the somber elements. Nonetheless, the experience is thoughtful, provocative and even inspiring.

Loy Arcenas’ set involves hanging fabrics in the background and nothing more, and Beverly Emmons’ lighting is appropriately warm and unelaborate.

The Vagina Monologues

Canon Theater; 299 seats; $49.50 top

Production: A James B. Freydberg, Yvette Fromer and William P. Suter presentation of monologues in one act by Eve Ensler. Directed by Joe Mantello.

Creative: Set, Loy Arcenas; lighting Beverly Emmons. Opened Oct. 14, 2000, reviewed Oct. 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast: With: Julie Kavner, Julianna Margulies, Rosie Perez.

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