Ensler Brings Personal, World Pain to Stage with ‘In the Body of the World’ (3.5 Stars)


‘In the Body of the World’ – Written & Performed by Eve Ensler; Directed by Diane Paulus; Costume and Scenic Design by Myung Hee Cho; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by M.L. Dogg; Projection Design by Finn Ross. Staged by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge through May 29.


by Mike Hoban


When catastrophic and life-threatening events occur during the course of one’s life, there are a multitude of ways to deal. Some choose to rail about the injustice being done them, shaking their fist at the universe or at a God they may or may not believe in; some become paralyzed by the fear that they may die or be left with a life that they may not feel is worth living; and others learn to accept that since there really isn’t much in their power they can do about it, make the necessary adjustments, take their medicine and hope for the best.


Playwright Eve Ensler, who wrote and performed the groundbreaking (and still relevant) Vagina Monologues in 1996, exercised an option that not many have available to them. After surviving a devastating bout with uterine cancer, she has taken her harrowing experiences to the stage in her one woman play, In the Body of the World. In it, she details not only the psychic and physical humiliations she must endure in dealing with the cancer and the subsequent treatment, but also how the new experiences re-open the pathways to her past trauma, such as the sexual abuse by her father and her mother’s emotional detachment. She then takes those experiences and globalizes them to include the BP oil spill and the increasingly disturbing global political climate. Directed by Diane Paulus, the 90 minute monologue is a world-premiere adaptation of her 2013 memoir of the same name.


For Ensler, the diagnosis came at a time when she was preparing to open City of Joy, a transformational leadership community for women survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Early on in the play, after receiving the diagnosis, she launches into a frenzied analysis of why and how she could have possibly been afflicted with the disease, running down a list of things that could have caused it (including “too much sex” and “not enough sex”). It is both funny and painful, like much of the play. 


During the course of the performance, Ensler lets us see all of her unfiltered thought processes, and it’s not always pretty (or flattering) to watch. Her in-your-face style of theater and activism may have been great for raising awareness about issues of vital importance to the rest of the world, but it’s an approach that doesn’t work very well when one is personally battling cancer (although Ensler obviously survived). Case in point: There is a scene where she has completed the first phase of her treatment, and when the doctor tells her that not only is she not fully cured, but she must subject her vagina to radiation to ensure that the cancer does not come back, she responds: “Radiate my vagina? Radiate my vagina? Radiate my vagina? (beat) Don’t you know who I am?” It’s a predictable laugh line for the audience, and Ensler milks it for maximum effect, but the response is telling in so many ways.


There are some powerful moments in this work (particularly when the narrative shifts to the horrors the women of the Congo suffered at the hands of the soldiers) and it’s definitely not for the squeamish. For more information, go to: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/body-world