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[Theater reviews]

Vagina reel
Eve Ensler speaks her piece


Written and performed by Eve Ensler. Production supervised by Joe Mantello. Set design by Loy Arcenas. Lighting by Beverly Emmons. At the Wilbur Theatre through April 1.

You might say The Vagina Monologues puts its money where its mouth is. Eve Ensler’s 1997 Obie Award–winning collection of riffs, based on interviews with some 200 women about their sexuality and private parts, has inspired not only a reclaiming of the word “cunt” but also a global movement to stop violence against women. The show is the inspiration — and the de rigueur entertainment — for V-Day, an annual Valentine’s Day celebration that has seen the likes of Glenn Close, Oprah Winfrey, and Calista Flockhart perform incantatory pæans to their pussies and has raised millions of dollars for organizations worldwide. The 2001 event sold out Madison Square Garden and trickled down to some 250 college campuses. So The Vagina Monologues comes to Boston’s Wilbur Theatre — one of only three tour venues where Ensler herself performs it — less an Off Broadway surprise than a cause célèbre.

But forget all that, important though it is. Even if The Vagina Monologues had never raised a dime for anyone but Eve Ensler, it would be side-splitting, community-building, orgasmic theater. And don’t take that last adjective lightly. What Ensler does at the Wilbur, simulating a roster of real rather than fake orgasms, makes Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally look like Cotton Mather. Indeed, one of the unexpected boons of The Vagina Monologues is what a fabulous performer Ensler, a playwright who had never taken the stage before she began channeling the monologues based on her interviews, turns out to be.

Perched on a high, red-upholstered chair in spaghetti straps and bare feet, nuzzling a boom mike as amber-to-rust cloths hang behind, the Louise Brooks–coiffed Ensler is by turns conspiratorial, winsome, transported, and pissed off. Her timing is drop-dead — watch the way she makes both a poem and a vaudeville bit out of answers to the question “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” During the 100-minute show, her accent leaps from her native Scarsdale (and less pricy New York environs) to England, where a primly hysterical workshop participant recognizes her vagina as “an eccentric tulip” and “a destiny,” to the American South, where a woman of color comes to elated terms with her much-abused “coochi snorcher.” The Vagina Monologues, which first saw life in 1996, has been playing Off Broadway for two and a half years, mostly with a rotating cast of three (who have included the unlikely likes of Rudolph Giuliani’s estranged wife, Donna Hanover, and Alanis Morissette). But as a one-woman show, as bold, simple, and tight as Ensler’s black dress, it’s dynamite. Or is that stick-up-your-explosion image too phallic? Let’s say it’s cornucopic.

“I bet you’re worried,” Ensler confronts the audience at the beginning — as if to allay its fear at being present at an entertainment named for a sex spot. But, she confides, she too had been worried — about her vagina. “It needed a context of other vaginas, a community, a culture.” In a sense, the playwright/performer has functioned as the organ’s therapist and social worker; she sets out not only to reclaim it, from shame and inhibition and vesselhood, but to give it voice. One of the most surefire monologues, “My Angry Vagina,” presents a Network-worthy mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-any-more genital raging at indignities from tampons to speculums (“mean cold duck lips”). Ensler doesn’t just give her vagina a bully pulpit; she gives it personality, strong, proud, savvy personality. “My vagina’s not stupid,” she says, and she proves it.

But The Vagina Monologues reaches farther than earthy humor and the gynecologist’s stirrups. There are poignant anthems to female pleasuring; there’s a blunt encomium to vaginal heroism in childbirth, and a chillingly poetic indictment of rape as a war tactic. Ensler delivers “My Vagina Was My Village,” the lament of a Bosnian woman who has endured the unspeakable and been alienated from her sexuality, in a rhythmic falsetto as if in a trance; the image of a once-happy place turned to “a river of poison and pus” is almost unbearable. More redemptive is the recollection of the young African-American woman whose vagina has been the site of a few car wrecks but has been raised, by a positive lesbian experience, “into a kind of heaven.”

The Vagina Monologues includes a smattering of “vagina facts,” including one — from Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography — that was taken up by the first-night audience like a mantra. The clitoris, it asserts, is the only organ in the human body, male or female, “designed purely for pleasure.” A bundle of nerves, it contains twice the number in the penis. “Who needs a handgun,” Ensler asks, “when you’ve got a semi-automatic?” Yet despite such statistic weapons in the arsenal, there is little anti-male assault in The Vagina Monologues. The first Boston performance was a benefit for the Massachusetts National Organization for Women Foundation, but it was, from first to last, a celebration of the vagina, not a censure of the dick. And never has that bad old theater joke, “A warm hand on your opening,” seemed so apt.

The performance reviewed above took place after the Phoenix’s Arts section had gone to press.

Issue Date: March 22-29, 2001