Women like to talk to Eve Ensler. Total strangers open up to this blunt but sympathetic performer-activist, who elicits the most intimate confidences about the most personal aspect of their lives – their sexuality. Those dialogues, which went public in a big way with “The Vagina Monologues,” no doubt will continue with “The Good Body.” But they are likely to kick up a different kind of controversy, because unlike the V material, which took a feminist political stance on violence toward women, this new edition focuses more on the damage that body-obsessed women do to themselves.
Fair warning to regional presenters who are already reaching for their calendars to pencil in a booking: The new show is far more elaborately mounted than “Monologues.” Forget Ensler perched on a stool, breathing into a handheld mike while she flips through flash cards. Peter Askin’s staging calls for a stage lumbered with unnecessary furniture and underutilized props. (Conventional desks and chairs are wasted on women too buzzed to sit still, and the eye passes over a useless grouping of mannequins to delight in a giant exercise ball that gets a real workout.)
Budget was well spent, though, on Wendall K. Harrington’s bigscreen video projections that wittily illustrate Ensler’s narrative of the agonizing female quest for physical perfection. Ditto for costumer Susan Hilferty’s racks of vivid shawls, shrugs, jackets, scarves and saris that women all over the world use as camouflage for the body not so beautiful.
Although she claims this bigger, busier stage in the purposeful manner of someone with a crowded agenda, Ensler is basically doing what she did the first time around, getting into the heads – and, more pointedly here, the bodies – of women who aren’t entirely comfortable articulating their feelings about their sexual selves. Ensler herself seems so at ease within her middle-age skin that it’s a shock to hear her admit that, like women everywhere, she “hates” one particular part of her body and is obsessed with getting it to shape up.
“What I can’t believe is that I, a radical feminist for nearly 30 years, could spend this much time thinking about … my stomach!” she declares, baring the offending midriff and getting a literal belly laugh that solidly connects her to her audience.
Expanding on her theme that women have been socially conditioned to equate physical beauty with moral worth, she chronicles the punishing lengths to which women will go to correct some physical blemish that they inflate into a full-blown character defect – or worse, a “badness” as corruptively evil as original sin. Lest the point be missed, a video shot is projected of Eve in the garden of Eden holding up, not an apple, but a huge sesame bagel.
Once she delivers her hilarious opening riff on Ab-Blasters, fascistic trainers and fat farms, Ensler moves into darker territory, exploring the complex psychology of guilt and self-loathing behind a woman’s perverse compulsion to remodel her body.
Giving voice to a variety of women (both famous and unsung) who have pummeled, pierced and surgically mutilated their bodies in the name of beauty, she looks for the patterns in their yearnings for social approval. A fleshy Puerto Rican woman named Carmen and the high priestess of thin, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, reveal the same girlish need to satisfy disapproving mothers. A youthful model who lets her plastic-surgeon husband use her body as his toy box shows the same dependency on the judgment of men as a postmenopausal matron who submits to painful vaginal rejuvenation to please her foolish husband.
Visiting women from various cultures to show the universality of this body-bashing, she finds a few extreme cases, like Bella, an Italian beauty who had her breasts removed at 16 to discourage the stepfather who seduced her when she was 14. (“I blamed my terrible breasts, they were responsible for everything.”) But in her travels she also talks to wise women in Africa, India, Russia, Afghanistan and other places where a woman’s body has become the political battleground on which larger issues are fought.
Clearly, Ensler wants to inspire her audience with the lessons she has learned about a woman’s right to live peacefully in her own imperfect body. But as the voices of these noble women get louder, they also grow shrill, and by the end of the evening the sermon on “Loving Your Good Body” overwhelms the more bittersweet experience of living it and sharing it with the sisters.