Second Viewings

March, among other things, like being the month that contains the infamous Ides of March that Julius Caesar did not “beware” to his sorrow (and yes I purposely waited until today, the actual Ides of March, to post this), or the month that heralds March Madness if you’re a basketball fan, as well as innumerable March Breaks for college students, and that also brings us St. Patrick’s Day, and most gloriously of all, the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Season at Lincoln Center, is also WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH.

So I, for one, am thinking of women’s performances, especially since I just saw Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World for a second time due to needing additional research for a conference paper I’m preparing. Though I should be spending my time writing the conference paper which I have tentatively entitled “A Stage of One’s Own” and which examines three solo performances by women, including Ensler’s In the Body of the World, what I really want to talk about and what I don’t have time to fit into the paper, is everything I discovered upon seeing Ensler’s performance a second time. So it would seem that I have no choice, but to divide my efforts and direct them into blog post and paper.

Before writing and performing In the Body of the World, which is based on her 2013 memoir bearing the same name but with the addition of a subtitle that reads A Memoir of Cancer and Connection, Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues which, as many of us know, is the international performance phenomenon that features women of all ages and backgrounds talking about their vaginas. The Vagina Monologues is in its 20th year of publication and performance and its anniversary is being celebrated in a very public way with photographic and written testimonials, including lots of large-font prints of the word VAGINA, in one of the spacious windows of NYC’s ABC Carpet fronting Broadway.

20 years later, Ensler has crafted a more personal solo performance, In the Body of the World. I attended the performance first on January 20th (the day of the SECOND women’s march since the inauguration of a certain U.S. president) and a second time on March 11th.

What I appreciated the second-time around is just how dramatic the performance is. Now that’s probably one of the most obvious statements I’ve ever made, but the point is that it wasn’t until the second viewing that I had the opportunity to pay attention to how the performance was put together; to pay attention to its craft. And I do want to spend time discussing the craft. Here’s why. I suspect that Ensler has lots of folks in the palm of her hand just at the word “cancer” and why shouldn’t she? What she has to say about cancer is a very important part of her performance, but it is in no way the only part of it, and I fear that perhaps the art and skill part of the performance is getting short shrift (when not actually getting dismissed by certain prominent male reviewers as I address in my conference paper).

Upon second viewing, I realized that place is key, both thematically and formally. Because I got to see it a second time, I was able to pay more attention to how the theater space is used metaphorically to convey the importance of place. Of course, I knew after the first viewing that In the Body of the World was all about place. For one thing, Ensler begins and ends her performance with the following words: “A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place. It says you are here.” After asserting that she has been exiled from her body, the performance becomes a kind of journey to reconnect body to place and to the presence of “here.” Another reason that I knew that the performance was all about place was that I was bowled over by the finale’s reveal (spoiler alert) of an entire lush, green rain forest that had been lurking behind the stage space upon which Ensler performed. A theatrical magic trick occurs and the stage that had housed furniture, including a divan that also acts as a hospital bed/gurney, a chair, not one but two cabinets, a low table, as well as carpets and pillows and projected images gives way to a rain forest with rooms in which to sit and/or wander through and/or meditate and/or pray. The back wall that had seemed so permanent especially since various images are projected on it throughout the performance, ascends to reveal a capacious, green, verdant and lush rain forest. After pronouncing the last three words “YOU ARE HERE,” Ensler invites the audience to come up onto the stage to visit the forest and to see that tucked in among the various nooks and crannies of the dense foliage are strings of lights and carpets and pillows and various altars to Hindu goddesses. A place that is simultaneously theater, nature, and home, and that is certainly a magic trick if ever I saw one.

Stay tuned for the next post delving into more of what I saw the second time around.


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