Milford Daily News: Eve Ensler shares her unique journey, passion at the A.R.T. in Cambridge

Publication date: 
May 8, 2016
Author: 
Alexander Stevens

How do you recover from a childhood with a father who molested you and a mother who emotionally abandoned you?

Eve Ensler would be the first to tell you that it’s not an easy path forward, and she stumbled plenty along the way, but eventually she found healing through helping. Her inspiring journey ultimately led to her remarkable humanitarian work in the Congo.

That’s where she was diagnosed with stage III/IV uterine cancer in 2010.

Suddenly, the playwright/performer of “The Vagina Monologues” had another story to tell: The story of her life. Ensler’s acclaimed memoir, “In the Body of the World,” was published in 2013.

“I couldn’t put it down,” says Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, describing her reaction to Ensler’s book. “I think I read it in one sitting. It’s some of her most powerful writing, because it is so deeply personal. In part, it’s about her personal history with cancer. And having been through that with my mother, who died of cancer, it was very vivid for me.”

Paulus had been a fan of Ensler’s work long before reading the memoir. Early in her tenure at the ART, Paulus read an article about Ensler and her ongoing commitment to the kind of theater that blurs the line between art and activism.

“She has this great passion for affecting change on the planet,” says Paulus. “I asked my staff, ‘Why isn’t Eve here at the ART? We need to get her here.’ ”

And here she is. That meeting led to Ensler’s multi-year residency at the ART, and one of the fruits of that labor is “In the Body of the World,” a one-woman stage adaptation of Ensler’s memoir, performed by Ensler and directed by Paulus. It plays May 10 to 29, at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.

The process of building the stage adaptation began in a unique way: Paulus asked Ensler to read her memoir aloud.

“I think it took about five hours,” says Paulus. “I just listened to her speak. Several weeks later, we started editing.”

At the same time, Paulus began to develop ideas about how to present the monologue. A one-person show can be a static experience, so Paulus asked herself, “What are the tools of theater that can help take us on this journey?”

The reading had taken place at Ensler’s loft in New York City, and Paulus realized it was the right setting for the play. They started taking pictures of the loft so that the designers could recreate it on stage.

“I wanted the performance to feel intimate,” says Paulus. “Eve is welcoming us into her space. It’s warm, it’s not a lecture.”

The journey may begin in Ensler’s loft, but it doesn’t stay there. “In the Body of the World” isn’t just about cancer or women’s relationships with their bodies. It’s also about women in the Congo, climate change, and the state of the medical profession.

“The loft becomes all these different locations,” says Paulus, “the Congo, a barbershop, the Mayo Clinic,” and the list goes on.

This directing assignment appears to require a fair amount of finesse. Yes, Paulus is the director, but really this story belongs thoroughly and completely to Ensler. Obviously Paulus’ ideas deserve respect (her shows have a track record of winding up on Broadway), but still, it would seem difficult for Paulus to make cuts and edits to such a deeply personal piece of work.

“I speak very honestly with Eve, and she has been remarkable,” reports Paulus. “I’ll tell her, ‘I don’t think you need that line,’ and she says, ‘Really?’ and she makes a sad face. But then she usually says, ‘OK.’ ”

A central theme that runs through Ensler’s memoir and her monologue is the idea of being disconnected from her body. For Ensler, it began with her father’s abuse. Talking with other women about how they viewed their bodies led her to “The Vagina Monologues,” and soon she was traveling the world to see and document the many forms of violence against women.

Ensler has said that her memoir is about her attempt to return to her body. Although Ensler’s journey is unique, Paulus believes there’s an universality to it.

“Most people are not in their bodies,” she says. “We sit in chairs all day and our blood flow stops. We’re not alive in our bodies, and we all know how good it feels during those times when we are alive in our bodies – when we take a walk or throw a football. But mostly, I don’t think people are in tune with their bodies.”

Ensler’s commitment and honesty are admirable, but her story takes people to some dark places. But Paulus isn’t concerned that the subject matter will scare away patrons.

The story “is very cathartic,” says Paulus. “It’s full of Eve’s signature mix of politics and humor. It’s life-affirming, and it’s very funny.”

Ask Paulus if she’s worried that “In the Body of the World” could be an emotionally combustible experience for the audience, and she says no, she feels just the opposite.

“I believe theater is a place where transformation can and should happen,” she says. “I hope that [catharsis] happens. We should be so lucky.”

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