By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
You have to admit, it's a tough act to follow.
In her runaway international hit The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler was anything but shy about that most private of private parts and her disarming, in-your-face, beaver-affirming, life-empowering activist candor has translated into a theatrical phenomenon with a life of its own: productions in 35 countries, with the Paris and Mexico City stagings now in their sixth continuous season. Lately there has been talk of launching the first U.S.-based, Spanish-language Monologos de la Vagina right here in South Florida, perhaps at the new Miami Performing Arts Center. Now comes The Good Body, opening November 8 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse fresh from a world premiere in San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
"This is the most personal play," says Ensler, "the most difficult play I have done. This time I am acting as witness to my own journey."
It is about more than vaginas. But The Good Body is more intimate in describing with almost cruel clarity the strange relation of women and their bodies. Moving north from genitalia and its environs, the new piece concentrates on the midsection, that ever-expanding cause of worry that in fact keeps too many women in a constant frenzy of self-hatred. Why am I flabby? Why can't I have six-pack abs? Why, oh why, can't I look like Claudia Schiffer? In a fast-moving series of vignettes based on real conversations, The Good Body paints a touching, actually hilarious picture of this spectacle of "all these women who could be incredibly powerful but instead are derailed because of this obsession with our bodies."
"Our programming goes pretty deep," says Ensler. "Corporate capitalism is genius, and they know what they are doing. These body images they are forcing upon us are insidious, pervasive, impossible. Look, we are being run by a corporate government brilliant at creating fear on every level so that we become isolated and powerless spending all our days trying to be all that, living up to what they say we have to be.
"What I am saying is that we have to stop looking at our bodies," continues Ensler, "that we have to get off ourselves. What I am saying is no! What I am saying is that you are perfectly gorgeous the way you are."
More than occasionally, when the author of The Vagina Monologues talks about Bush, she means the President. "I can't believe we are still living in a time when we can consider war an option.
"And yes, it does feel a little odd to be here worrying about my tummy while there is a war in Iraq," she confesses early on in The Good Body.
"I spend a lot of my time speaking out against the war. I am an activist." But she also realizes, like many serious artists, that the stage is her best platform.
Ensler is first and foremost a playwright. But her stand-up acts with a proven record as juicy scripts for other actors gain a delicious edge when the author herself performs her words. Here she appears like a cross between the melancholic brilliance of the late Spalding Gray and the Smith-girl-gone-way-wrong aggressiveness of the retrofitted Joan Rivers. As filthy as either of them, vastly more political than both, Ensler is an old-fashioned committed artist along Sartrean lines. There is more than a touch of Samuel Beckett to her improbable optimism: "I think of the dislocations in Beckett," says Ensler. "I think of the sparseness of his work, of these spaces you can fall into. I think of his willingness to be lacking, suddenly to be in the deepest part of pain. As in The Good Body, so funny then so incredibly painful."
Ensler's real joy at Harold Pinter's recent Nobel Prize is that of an affectionate disciple. "I love Pinter. To see them give the Nobel to a political playwright now made me feel like, Okay, let's keep going!" Ensler herself is now working on a new play that sounds as minimal and intense as the works of Sartre, Beckett, and Pinter she admires. "I will not be in this one," she says, "and I can't talk about it yet.... The older I get," says Ensler, "the more existentialist I get."
She adds, "Having traveled so much with The Vagina Monologues for the last eight years, and now this, I have been living a nomadic life separate from what I thought of as my identity." That can be liberating, both for Ensler and for the millions she's been talking to.
"My identity is nothing except the right-here and right-now," she says, "talking to you."
That means all of you.