Eve Ensler lists what not to think about on day four of chemotherapy: "The Koch brothers, 300 million guns in America, white supremacists…" The list goes on and on as she crawls on the floor, writhing in pain from her toxic cancer treatment. And we laugh — hard. Ensler's acerbic humor is one thing you get a feel for during her solo piece, In the Body of the World, now running at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center - Stage I. But aside from a quick wit, with which we're already familiar from the activist-artist's celebrated Vagina Monologues, Ensler proves her talent for building subtle emotional dynamics that give us the opportunity to laugh, not in spite of empathy, but because of it.
In the Body of the World, adapted from Ensler's 2013 autobiography, tells the parallel stories of her humanitarian work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and her battle with late-stage uterine cancer. A 2007 visit to the DRC inspired her work on City of Joy, a sanctuary for the survivors of rape that accompanied the country's gruesome war. The project launch was followed by a bleak diagnosis that led Ensler to a reckoning of sorts with her body's complicated past. "Cancer threw me into the center of my body's crisis," she says. "The Congo threw me into the crisis of the world."
Accompanied by Finn Ross's vivid projections of everything from medical images to African protesters, these two narrative threads together evade the tropes of both the "survivor" and the "savior" story. The struggle we see instead is how to balance global needs with personal needs: When do you set aside one battle for the sake of the other? And when can you use the belly fire you have for one to fight the other? These are questions that may not have been so pertinent when Ensler premiered In the Body of the World at the American Repertory Theater in 2016 (under the direction of Diane Paulus, who reprises her work for the New York mounting). In the year-and-a-half since then, however, bombs have been going off left, right, and center, and we've been left with the paralyzing choice of what to tend to first.
We may not be building an asylum in the Congo while fighting Stage 4 cancer, but we can understand the tug-of-war between the demands of everyday existence and the bigger battles calling out to be fought on behalf of "the world" — that behemoth concept Ensler invokes in her title. Maddening thoughts about the Koch brothers, 300 million guns in America, and white supremacists roll around in our unfocused minds like an existential farce, and our bodies, with their finite capacities, appear to be the greatest impediment to the conquest of these demons. Ensler, however, with her unapologetic hippie charisma, shows how our bodies are in fact our gateways to the world, so we better tend to their needs.
When Paulus provides no stage business, Ensler can slip into a style of delivery the that resembles a memorized TED talk. But, appropriately enough, when her body is engaged with the story, so is her audience. She's a warm, charming, grounded narrator who is persuasive enough to get New York theatergoers dancing at her command, and bold enough to request an elaborate jungle set for only one scene of the play (the work of Myung Hee Cho, which we're allowed to admire up closewalk through after the performance). Like a mirror image of her own life, the story is choppy and off-roads more often than it stays any particular course. But I suppose if you're searching for a way to reclaim ownership of your body, you might have to get a little lost in the world .
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