How deliciously apt that Eve Ensler should return to New York with her “Vagina Monologues” just as Mayor Giuliani conducts his embarrassingly juvenile jihad against a piece of elephant dung. Among the many other issues Ensler’s spellbinding, funny and almost unbearably moving solo performance raises is the terrible price people may pay for submitting to cultural taboos. Such censorship — and self-censorship — can hobble and warp not just sexuality but the spirit itself, this startling piece of theater reminds us, and much sorrow and confusion and loss have been occasioned by a “Christian” propriety that includes silence on the subject of sex among its social diktats.
“The Vagina Monologues” has been seen widely since its Gotham premiere Off Broadway in 1996. It has won awards and traveled internationally, and helped raise funds, with the aid of big-name celebrity readings, for organizations that seek to end violence against women, whether domestic, cultural or criminal.
That may make it sound very worthy and politically correct, a theatrical form of ’60s-style consciousness-raising. And indeed it does raise one’s consciousness — but then so does most good art, in one way or another.
“The Vagina Monologues” does much more, as well. It rubs insistently at the funny bone, sometimes gently, sometimes violently. It alternately warms and saddens the heart, it occasionally shocks the sensibility, it sears the soul. Now in a limited run Off Broadway, in a polished and attractive production supervised by Joe Mantello, it deserves to be a sellout again on wildfire word of mouth.
Sitting on a tall chair center stage, her ruby lips smiling slyly from beneath a sharp black bob, Ensler begins the show by describing its gestation in a series of interviews with women of various ages and races on the subject of, uh, their genitalia. (I’m a man of my culture: I can’t be as frank in my writing as Ensler so commendably is.) Ensler distilled the results into a series of monologues, some based on a single interview, some thematic collages culled from many.
Although they all treat very specifically women’s attitudes toward their sexuality and identity as it is linked to perceptions of their bodies, the monologues manage to encompass an astonishing range of experience. In one quietly devastating passage, Ensler impersonates an elderly woman recalling the moment in her youth when she closed herself off to sexual pleasure after a sudden arousal inspired ignorant scorn in her date.
Elsewhere Ensler reminds us of the still more sinister ways in which men continue to express their strange primal fear of women’s sexuality, describing the cruel practice of genital mutilation that is visited upon some 2 million (mostly) African women a year.
From interviews with survivors of a Bosnian rape camp, Ensler has woven together a chilling evocation of the crippling emotional dislocation rape can result in; from a Southern black woman’s history of sexual abuse springs a surprisingly comic tale of emotional redemption. There are incantatory meditations on erotic pleasure, pungent celebrations of sexual discovery, fantastically silly lists of euphemisms for the vagina.
Ensler’s language throughout is specific and surprising, elegantly shaped and always redolent of the real human voices it is rooted in. Although she is perfectly adept at the mild character sketches she draws, Ensler is not really an actress, and that’s as it should be — paradoxically, a fully dramatized delivery might detract from the truthfulness of the performance.
The evening concludes with a passage of breathtaking beauty: Ensler’s description of the delivery of a child that vividly evokes the wonder and strife and pain of our perilous passage into life. Written with a bluntness that is nevertheless intensely lyrical, it gently draws together the myriad emotional strands of this indelible theatrical experience, which is both a work of art and an incisive piece of cultural history, a poem and a polemic, a performanceand a balm and a benediction.