Her newest work, Fruit Trilogy, an evening of three one acts, “Pomegranate,” “Avocado” and “Coconut,” has all of the strengths and weaknesses of her previous stage plays which include going on at too great length when the audience has already gotten the point. Directed by Mark Rosenblatt who staged the world premiere at the United Kingdom’s West Yorkshire Playhouse, the play features Kiersey Clemons and Liz Mikel who are frightening in their intensity and realism. Although the three settings are unstated, the fact that both actresses are black suggests that the plays may have been inspired by Ensler’s humanitarian work in Africa. Although it will not be immediately obvious to theatergoers, the plays move from two women enslaved, to a woman traveling to freedom, to finally a woman finding liberation through her own body.
The first play, “Pomegranate,” is the most surreal and the most chilling. Two women who can only be seen from the neck up are items for sale on a shelf in a warehouse storage room where men come to examine the goods. They know they are in the next section from the children. They can see the red fruit trees growing outside a window from their vantage, a sign of spring, but cannot see their own bodies. They can’t recall which war is going on but they can remember life as it used to be.
One speaks of her brother who has joined the brutal warlords, the other that she feels that her body is dead. One has hope for a new life, the other that they have no possibilities. It is just before opening time and then they undergo the pawing by the unseen customers who are here to choose them as sex slaves. It is unclear whether this is a bordello or a store. They worry about attracting attention and then one disappears from view.
In the longest and most substantial of the plays, “Avocado,” Clemons appears as a prostitute on the run in a war ravaged country. She has incarcerated herself in an avocado container that she has been told will take her to a country called “Asylum.” Beginning in almost total darkness, Clemons tells of her childhood, her parents who couldn’t help her, her degrading life as a prostitute since the age of 12, her hopes and dreams. She bewails the smell of the rotting fruit, the lack of air, and the noise from the other passengers including a mother with a child who ultimately stops crying, all packed among the avocados. She recalls her one love experience and she attempts to move toward the little light that penetrates the container that she is in.
With Clemons’ intense, frightened performance, “Avocado” is difficult to watch both because of her fear and suffering and the fact that we are literally kept in the dark – like she is – for most of its length. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design is most effective here as the young woman moves around the boxes and containers on Mark Wendland’s disorienting set which is perched high up on the stage. The light brightens and dims with no explanation and no pattern, plunging us into darkness, then suggesting an arrival at a destination which seems out of reach. Andrea Lauer’s costume and the uncredited make-up suggest the ravaged life that the young woman has lived as well as the path of her escape from that life lived at the bottom of society. The play is very powerful in its message but tends to repeat itself rather than reveal new levels to its horrors.
In the third and last play, “Coconut,” Mikel returns as a woman getting in touch with her body through the application of coconut oil. Set in her bathroom lit with candles, Mikel invites us to watch and listen as she finds sensual awakening and release in kneading the oil into her skin starting from her feet. Following in the pattern of Ensler’s monologue plays The Vagina Monologues, The Good Body, and In the Body of the World, “Coconut”’s message is that in order to liberate one’s self one has to get in touch with one’s own body.
The difficulty with the play is that theater is a communal experience but the audience cannot join the performer – at least in the seats. As she removes most of her clothing, Mikel urges us to join her by taking off first our shoes and then getting up to dance. She also breaks the fourth wall by announcing that she knows she is in a theater not the privacy of her own home as the theater lights come up, destroying the conceit that has been built up by the moody, atmospheric lighting. As we sit in the audience fully clothed, some will be made uncomfortable by all the talk of sensual fulfillment. However, this may well be Ensler’s intention aside from the pertinent message of the play. Mikel is wonderfully open and expansive as she offers us her sensual gratification, and is completely comfortable with her partial nudity.
Eve Ensler’s Fruit Trilogy depicts worthy issues that need to be publicly discussed. However, as the individual plays are only about one issue each, they tend to go on too long, way past the time when the audience has gotten the messages. This may, in fact, be Ensler’s chosen technique, inundating the viewer with too much information that becomes difficult to forget, a limit to what we can take in. However, the problem is that there is a dropping off of attention, a diminishing of returns. Ensler may also be preaching to the converted who arrive already knowing what an agitator she tends to be. Nevertheless, under Mark Rosenblatt’s assured direction, Kiersey Clemons and Liz Mikel, who each appear in two of the three plays, are superb, giving their entire selves to their difficult, disturbing roles.
Fruit Trilogy (through June 23, 2018)
Abingdon Theatre Company
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, south of Bleecker, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-868-2055 or first http://www.abingdontheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission
New Eve Ensler play includes three one acts which move from two women enslaved, a woman traveling to freedom, to a woman liberated through her body.