Body dovetails Ensler’s personal agonizing battle with cancer and her involvement with a feminist group in the Democratic Republic of Congo where women have faced violence, rape and almost unending disruption of their lives. Ensler’s input was requested by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist whose ministrations to the female victims of the sadism of soldiers and government officials paints a litany of one tragic event after another.
Ensconced in Myung Hee Cho’s comfortable Asian-accented room—red lacquered cabinets, colorful rugs, a chaise lounge—and Cho’s comfortable, loose costumes, Ensler tells her stark tale, helped by Finn Ross’ vivid projections. She is low-keyed, yet able to laugh at her own cancer which she first discovered while planning for a sanctuary for women in the Congo, City of Joy.
Her descriptions of every step of her difficult medical journey are the grist of Body, dovetailed with her adventures, mostly in absentia, with the Congolese stalwarts, led by Mama C who continually communicates with Ensler.
At one point during treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota—which she calls “Cancer Town”—she meets Dr. Handsome who knows who she is and promises to take good care of her. She is accompanied to her first examinations by her assistant, Toast, and two friends, Paula and Kim, which she compares to Gary Gilmore en route to his firing squad—typical of her acid wit.
In great anatomical detail she outlines her fight against cancer, all the while alternating with images from the other battle for salvation in the Congo. She remembers the jungle after cooling rainfall and the courage of her female compatriots.
Ensler keeps the play afloat with her frankness and humor, even when she unabashedly displays her wounds and describes parts of her body removed or mangled. We accompany her to New York City where she first tries Memorial Sloan Kettering, but settles on Beth Israel, where her doctor treats her like a real, living, breathing person. She rallies in a room with the view of a tree. Images of the tree and rallies of brave women in the Congo illuminate her experiences.
En route she lacerates President Trump, police violence, the hypocrisy of DACA politics, Chernobyl, lawn pesticides to give herself a sense of proportion and understanding the loss of her intimate parts, particularly after giving up smoking and drinking many years before. She even brings up her sister Lu to whom she behaved badly. Ensler soon learns, much to her surprise, of her sister’s loving and caring nature.
She blames herself for not being a “good steward” of her body, but her friends join forces to help her the best they can. She also brings up an adopted son who gives her support. Even her shrink, Sue, guides her during chemo. (Pot also helped.)
When told that her vagina needed radiation she replies sassily, “Do you know who I AM?”
Her “village” of friends, relatives and medical professionals provide moving testimony to Ensler’s courage, but the real surprise is an ending that turns In the Body of the World into a thrilling theatrical experience, an ending that has to be seen.
Diane Paulus directs with wit and energy, knowing exactly how to make Ensler’s stories attractive, although some judicious pruning might have helped a play overburdened with detail.
In the Body of the World (extended through March 25, 2018)
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission