“Do you have any idea who I am?” Eve Ensler tells a doctor from the Mayo Clinic after he suggests radiation therapy on her vagina as a preventative against the return of uterine cancer.
The audience certainly does, and shares the irony with the writer of “The Vagina Monologues” and founder of the international women’s activist movement, V-Day. In Ensler’s new solo show “In the Body of the World,” she goes beyond simply recounting her experience with cancer — and an intimate, shocking and touching tale it is — to create a bold, political work that is as personal and global as her signature work.
But it’s more than “The Cancer Monologues,” set in a loft apartment. In a production that unfolds and deepens in surprising ways — and is strategically staged by Diane Paulus — Ensler connects the cancerous attack on her body with those women suffering from afar. Specifically, she draws a line to the safe haven for victims of rape and abuse named City of Joy, which she helped establish in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But Ensler widens her lens even further in relating her own self-neglect, suppression and denials (which together led to Stage III/IV cancer), linking them to the same reactions that have led to the ravaging of the earth with floods, droughts and oil spills (the latter of which she grimly relates to her post-operative infection).
It’s not as great a leap as you would imagine, and Ensler presents it in a thoughtfully laid-out narrative quilt, made up of engaging frankness, measured sentiment, smartly-timed revelations and disarming humor.
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Her wry observations — bring on the drugs, the pot, the fart specialist! — and her confident, casual air certainly help when presenting, in short, episodic segments, the most intimate details of her treatment, and its accompanying roller coaster of emotions. It’s her knack of mixing the serious with the flip that keeps the air charged with sudden surprises and unexpected richness. In telling of her darkest times, she throws a light switch on with grace. In the lighter moments, there’s often a shadow cast, too.
Ensler zeroes in on the details: A metaphoric tree outside her hospital window connects her with her African friends; a liberating perspective on chemo treatment leads to a dramatic purge; and a simple gesture of humanity from a doctor makes all the difference in the world.
We also see a connection with her life story as she tells of the abuse by her father and the heartless indifference of her mother, as well as her bad choices in drugs, alcohol and men. But in her family details, there’s also a new sisterhood, the deepening of the love of a son, and a kind of peace with a demented mother.
It’s a journey that leads not just to a healthy end — this hip earth mother recovers — but an uplifting one. For the finale, there’s a coup de theatre — heightened by Myung Her Cho’s set, Jen Schriever’s lighting, M. L. Dogg and Sam Lerner’s sound and Finn Ross’ projections — that envisions a vibrant, verdant and welcoming life ahead, not only for Ensler but perhaps for the planet too.