After a journey into hell, Ensler’s still here
Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ’em all
And, my dear, I’m still here
Plush velvet sometimes
Sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here
– “I’m Still Here,” by Stephen Sondheim, from “Follies”
CAMBRIDGE – In a quiet moment, you can imagine Eve Ensler would agree with the spirit of the Sondheim tune.
The playwright/author/activist and creator of the iconic work “The Vagina Monlogues” was diagnosed with Stage III/IV uterine cancer while working in the Congo to provide a safe space for women brutalized in the country’s seemingly endless civil war.
What followed is the essence of the American Repertory Theater’s world premiere production of Ensler’s “In The Body of the World,” now at the Loeb Drama Center through May 29.
In as intense a 90 minutes of live theater as you could imagine, director Diane Paulus and Ensler — who has found an artistic home at the A.R.T. – have crafted a tight and taut production, with nary a slack spot, a testimony to the work they’ve put in together in the past and the trust that is evident.
Ensler’s work is an adaptation of her 2013 memoir that celebrates the strength and joy that connect a single body to the planet as she takes the audience on a multi-year journey that’s a roller-coaster of emotions, from the discovery of her “mango-sized” tumor, her first operation, subsequent complications and treatments, and chemotherapy, all set against her desire to get back to her life as an activist and advocate for women in distress.
It could not be a more personal piece, which we know long before Ensler pulls back the curtain to show the scar from her operation or doffs a wig that covers her now shorter hairstyle.
Some of “In the Body” doesn’t break new ground. Ensler has always been frank about the sexual abuse she endured as child and the subsequent promiscuous sex, anorexia and substance abuse that followed.
But here she presents a deeply detailed description of the events that followed her diagnosis, beginning with her stay in “Cancer Town” (aka Rochester, Minn., the home of the Mayo Clinic).
A master storyteller, she brings into sharp focus the others in her life: a sister who becomes her caretaker, a distant mother, and close friends who were along for the journey.
While battling her illness, she has a new appreciation of her body, and while “moving back in” to her body she connects her situation with events in the larger world: the BP oil spill, for example, while also juxtaposing her battle with the struggle of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – known in the past as the Belgian Congo and Zaire – who are being raped, brutalized in other ways, or killed.
In the Congo, she worked with others to complete a City of Joy, a safe place where the brutalized women can heal and have a future.
At times, Ensler’s connections with events such as the BP oil spill seem a little tenuous or strained, but the structure of the piece – three chapters titled, “Somnolence,” “Burning” and “Second Wind.” – bring things back into focus.
In a published interview, Ensler talked about the first chapter.“ I had a tumor the size of a mango inside me and didn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t like I didn’t know something was wrong. But cancer blew off that somnolence, where you’re half awake and half asleep. When I woke up from surgery and had tubes and ports coming out of me, I was just a body. When you come into your body, you become porous. There is no separation between you and the world. “
“Burning” talks about the experience of adding the poison of chemotherapy to your body to kill the cancer, while “Second Wind” addresses the process of getting back the energy needed to get back on the track of living a life.
At times, the piece lurches from the darkest humor imaginable – including a story about Cindy, the “fart volunteer” who charts patients’ progress in improving their bowel function and for whom “farts are music to my ears” — to a jaw-dropping story of unimaginable cruelty in the Congo that is likely to bring you to tears.
The production benefits from some sterling production values, including set and costume design by Myung Hee Cho, who replicates Ensler’s Manhattan apartment, which morphs into hospital suite and other venues, as well as a truly spectacular jungle in the Congo, all of which pair well with Finn Ross’ equally evocative projection designs.
After a recent performance, theater-goers were invited onstage “into the jungle” for a nightly “Act II” talk-back; the talk-backs will continue with different participants after each performance.
“In the Body of the World” is a triumph of the human spirit and one woman’s resolve not to let cancer stop her work or silence her voice.
And, as Sondheim would describe Ensler’s journey in “Follies”:
I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, C’est la vie
I got through all of last year, and I’m here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here
Look who’s here, I’m still here.
The American Repertory Theater world premiere production of Eve Ensler’s “In the Body of the World.” Written and performed by Eve Ensler, based on her 2013 memoir. Directed by Diane Paulus. At the Loeb Drama Center through May 29. http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org.