BU Delivers Entertaining and Engaging ‘Vagina Monologues’ (4.5 Stars)

The Vagina Monologues – Written by Eve Ensler; Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio; Scenic Design by Colleen Doty; Lighting Design by Keithlyn Parkman. Presented by Boston University at the BU College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave Boston through October 24.

One of the intriguing things about reviewing theater in Greater Boston is that you never know what you’re going to get. I have walked into theaters eagerly anticipating a show and walked out sorely disappointed, but I have also gone into productions by fringe companies with muted expectations and walked out raving. So when a friend suggested I see “The Vagina Monologues” at Boston University, I had two minor hesitations in a very busy theater season: One, that it was a student production; and secondly, that middle-aged men weren’t exactly the target audience for this work. But my misgivings soon dissolved as this well-executed, imaginatively staged production unfolded, and the overall brilliance of playwright Eve Ensler’s script served as a reminder that marvelous storytelling is still what great theater is all about. This was no “student” production (other than the chronological age of the actors) and as far as appeal for men in my demographic, it was clear that a couple of similarly aged men sitting near me (including a friend) were equally charmed.

Director Olivia D’Ambrosio elicits strong performances from the cast and stages the vignettes in a way that makes each monologue stand on its own as a fresh piece while maintaining a seamless flow to the production. D’Ambrosio is the Producing Artistic Director of Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, a fledgling company that has consistently produced solid productions of challenging material in their first year-plus, and this production has a similar feel to the company’s work in both the preparedness of the actors and the risks taken with the material.

“Vagina Monologues” was first performed by Ensler as a one-woman show in 1996, and was created after she interviewed over 200 women about their views on sex, relationships, and violence against women. The result is a series of stories told by characters detailing not only their culturally reinforced thoughts about their own vaginas but the way that women’s sexuality has been diminished through shame centered feelings associated with their “mysterious” organ. The pieces vary wildly, from the uplifting “Because He Liked to Look At It” (where the woman learns to more fully accept, embrace and love her vagina with the help of her otherwise ordinary lover “Bob”) to the horrific “My Vagina Was My Village,”, told by a character who was a victim in a Bosnian rape camp.

The five actors (four playing various characters, the fifth being the narrator/interviewer) were dressed simply and uniformly in grey tank tops and black yoga pants, with very few props in the production. It was staged in a standard black box but with a five foot wide stark white strip cutting through the dark background at an angle from ceiling to across the stage – like a cross between a fashion runway and a lightning bolt – with a small elevated platform at the rear of the stage where the narrator addressed the audience. The performers used the whole space (fewer than 100 seats) to great advantage and there was some audience interaction, with one funny segment coming when an older gentleman read some dialogue written by a woman to his fellow audience members. There were also some really creative staging elements to the production, including the use of hand shadows in the otherwise dark theater to indicate the chaos of a party and the offstage voice of a six year old girl talking (quite happily and innocently) about her vagina.

The narrator (a convincing Haley Jakobson) introduced each segment, sometimes with educational factoids (like statistics on domestic violence and rape), but the play never slips into bad political theater, and the information is used more as a way of setting up a segment. The material is not dry or heavy-handed, and some of the pieces are amusingly touching or laugh out loud funny, including the aforementioned “Because He Liked to Look At It” as well as “My Angry Vagina”, (both delivered by Ami Park with a nice comic touch) which details the warped way both the medical and marketing communities treat the vagina. In another potentially volatile (but funny) bit, Caroline Hoeneymeyer does a nice job disarming the power of the c-word, no easy trick given that it’s still one of the most jarring words in the English language.

Another amusing (but with very sad undertones) monologue featured a 72-year-old woman who had never seen her own vagina (which she referred to as “down there”) because of shame associated with her reaction to being stimulated. Beverly Diaz really owns this character, and does an equally bang up job on the other end of the age spectrum in the role of a 13-year old girl who finds sexual healing with an older woman after being raped by her father’s drunken friend. Viviana Vargas also receives high marks for her portrayal of the Bosnian rape camp survivor as well as her sultry turn as a dominatrix who services only women.

Some of the pieces were so entertaining and effective that I half expected applause at the end of some of them as you would at a music performance. This was a show that was in many ways superior to many “professional” productions I have seen this season, and one that really deserves a longer run.