General Medical · Theater

Theater Review: Eve Ensler’s ‘In the Body of the World’ — When the V-Word Meets the C-Word

Ensler’s performance (like her writing) is fearless, although her story itself certainly includes fear — and anger, grief, and disbelief. The evening I saw In the Body of the World, there were at least two oncologists in the audience. Both were eager to contribute to the talk-back with the play’s director Diane Paulus when the show ended. One doctor took issue with Ensler’s looking for blame after she learns she’s sick. A big challenge for him, he explained, was convincing patients that they didn’t create or cause their cancer. The other doctor praised that element of the play for the very same reason. He argued that by dramatizing the entire response process, Ensler was helping others cope with the full range of emotions that surface when they hear and then must live with that dreaded diagnosis. Both admired how willing Ensler was to share her very personal experience.

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And share she does. Ensler opens herself up completely, at one point removing her wig and disrobing to put on a hospital gown. It may be a cliché, but her momentary nakedness underscores just how much she has bared her soul. The story is at times flinchingly honest — whether it’s describing a particularly gruesome post-surgical infection, detailing some of the atrocities she had seen in the Congo, or coming to terms with being molested as a child. Throughout, her intelligence, compassion for others, and wry humor, often of the gallows variety, shine through. (As a recovered drug addict, Ensler was especially amused by medical marijuana and more than a little surprised that her until now underappreciated sister could roll such a good joint.) The entire work with its breadth and depth of feelings helps us fathom the unfathomable and face what none of us ever want to face. This is high-resolution, Technicolor, surround-sound emotional territory.

Fortunately, Ensler’s story is in good hands. Director Paulus serves as A.R.T.’s artistic director and has won multiple Tony Awards herself for revivals of Hair, Pippin, and Porgy and Bess. Her latest production, Waitress, is nominated for Best Musical this year. In 2014, Paulus was selected for TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The combination of these two powerful voices makes In the Body of the World resonate on every level. The play is a compelling survivor’s story, but it’s also a celebration of woman by women. Paulus has explained her work with Ensler this way: “As intense as this memoir is, there’s a lot of joy in it and a lot of humor and affirmation. It’s really about healing. It’s a less a cancer story and more a story about: How do we heal?”

As Ensler’s body and soul slowly heal, she continues her work for the victims of the Congo. And, when “City of Joy” finally opens, it creates an unspoiled Eden where women can at last heal and come back into the world.

There are hopes that Ensler and Paulus will have the opportunity to mount In the Body of the World in additional locations. Meanwhile, you can read Ensler’s memoir (or purchase an audio book with the author herself reading it) here.

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  • Andrea June 27, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Always admired Eve Ensler! What a brave and compassionate warrior!! Thanks for the review Alex!