Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”) gives a bold and brave solo performance in “In the Body of the World,” a play that she has written and an American Repertory Theater production presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Ensler has dug deeply into her personal experiences and passion for helping those treated unjustly in the world in her effort to move an audience as she dramatically enacts her work.
Filling in family and personal background, Ensler recounts how she was affected when she received the drastic news that she had uterine cancer. Ever dramatic, Ensler fantasizes that the tumor may be a baby. But she faces the reality of having to go for cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. She giftedly leads us through the process, sometimes with chilling humor, but always revealing the blow to her psyche and sense of her place in the world.
At one point she removes her black wig with bangs to reveal the mostly shaven head that went with her chemotherapy. It sharply changes her appearance, and also has the effect of stripping down to the essence of how she must deal with her illness and the world in which she is sociologically engaged.
But there is a stretch in trying to tie the personal problem of her cancer with world problems, such as the abuse of women, which prompted her to help establish a refuge in Congo for rape victims. The link is the basis of her play, and one has to make the leap with her in order to appreciate her concept. There is a certain amount of ego in this connection, yet the passion in Ensler’s performance glows with sincerity and dynamism.
Director Diane Paulus helps considerably by keeping Ensler moving about as she dramatizes various stages of her life and the experiences that she endures. There is a challenge to solo performances, even when this one is but 80 minutes without an intermission. It takes talent and excellent direction to hold one’s attention, which Ensler mostly does, assisted by the savvy staging by Paulus.
At the end there is a sublime scenic coup provided by designer Myung Hee Cho—the revealing of a glorious tree-filled garden that expresses the hope that Ensler strives to communicate. Members of the audience at the performance I attended were invited to go on stage and stroll through the garden after the play ended. At New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed February 9, 2018.