In 2010, Eve Ensler learned that she had uterine cancer. The timing was cruel—she was about to attend the opening of City of Joy, a sanctuary for rape victims that she had helped found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She had dedicated her life to building a better universe for women, so what did the universe have against her?
That question haunts In the Body of the World, Ensler’s theatrical version of her memoir about confronting and surviving cancer, which has just opened in Portland at triangle productions! “So, how’d I get it?” she asks the audience. “Was it tofu? I ate a lot of fucking tofu. Was it failing at marriage—twice? Was it worrying every day for 56 years that I wasn’t good enough?
Ensler, perhaps best known for her 1996 play The Vagina Monologues, writes with a wink—she knows that no one gets cancer from karma. Yet behind her questions lies a lifetime of agony, including the physical and sexual abuse she endured from her father as a child. In the Body of the World presents her struggle against cancer and her struggle to transcend trauma as two battlefields of a single war—a war where victory means achieving control over her body and her spirit.
With wit and grit, triangle dramatizes Ensler’s fight in its new production of In the Body of the World. Like Ensler, star Raissa Fleming and director Donald Horn are masters of merging disparate moods and tones—they guide us through wrenching laughs and agonizing confessions with grace and gumption that mostly makes up for the play’s underwritten passages.
In the Body of the World—which follows Ensler through diagnosis, chemotherapy and spiritual rebirth—is a one-woman show, but Fleming persuades you that the stage is packed with people. When Ensler describes communicating wordlessly by pressing her head against her mother’s, Fleming doesn’t just move you—she speaks to a pillow so tenderly that she imbues it with life.
Fleming also has fun with the play’s transgressive humor. Ensler, who in addition to creating The Vagina Monologues also served as a consultant on George Miller’s 2015 movie Mad Max: Fury Road, clearly gets a thrill out of writing lines like, “I don’t want to be a fucking patient! I hate sick people!” Her ruthless frankness is liberating to behold, and whenever Fleming has to say the supposedly unsayable, she tears into the dialogue with triumphant glee.
While In the Body of the World is Ensler’s story, the play airs her thoughts on climate change, Donald Trump, female genital mutilation, and much more. It places Ensler’s life in the context of a world overflowing with tragedy—a storytelling strategy that makes sense, given how the horrors of the wider world can seem morbidly inviting compared to the intimate hells of personal pain.
Nevertheless, when Ensler veers away from events that she has directly experienced, the play falters. She vividly describes the hospital volunteer who was her “fart deliverer” (apparently, it’s a real job), but we learn less than we should about City of Joy. Watching In the Body of the World is like watching two plays—one about Ensler the cancer survivor and one about Ensler the activist—and because one isn’t fully developed, they don’t always cohere into a seamless whole.
Despite In the Body of the World’s shortcomings, Horn and his crew have found immense beauty in the play. Using a screen, they flood the stage with images of nature—including a verdant forest and a watery expanse—that open up Ensler’s world and suggest that she’s searching for inner peace. It’s just one of many instances in which the production feels cinematic, both literally and figuratively.
Today, Eve Ensler no longer goes by her given name—after completing The Apology, a book in which she imagined the apology that she never received from her father, she decided to go by V. Her choice suggests a shedding of past hurts and a turn toward future glories, an idea hinted at in In the Body of the World when she declares that cancer burned her down to “essential matter,” a phrase that is also a fitting way to describe the play.
- In the Body of the World continues live and onstage through Sept 25 at triangle’s home space, The Sanctuary @ Sandy Plaza, 1785 N.E. Sandy Blvd., Portland. For tickets, coronavirus protocols, and scheduling information, see http://www.trianglepro.org/in-the-body-of-the-world#sthash.UMjJ0r22.dpbs.