White Rhino Report: A.R.T. Presents The World Premiere of "In the Body of the World"

Publication date: 
May 23, 2016
Al Chase

When this theater season in Boston and Cambridge draws to a close, I am confident that the current World Premiere of Eve Ensler's "In The Body Of The World," being presented by the A.R.T. at the Loeb, will continue to be talked about as one of the most impactful works of art.  It is simply stunning in every aspect.

Eve Ensler has been a household name for many since her breakthrough "Vagina Monologues."  She has gone on the write other plays, and to found V Day, an annual event to throw a harsh spotlight on the need to empower women to stand up for their rights. As Ms. Ensler continued her activist work, she learned of the horrific wartime conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where women and girls - from 80 to 8 years of age! - were systematically being raped as a tactic for instilling fear into villages and tribes.  Out of her knowledge of that crisis, she helped to found a refuge for women called City of Joy in Bukavu, DNC.

In the midst of raising the funds to create City of Joy, Eve was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, and spent many months fighting for her life.  Once she had endured surgery and chemotherapy and hospitals in several U.S. states, and once she was out of danger, she reflected on her experiences in written form in a memoir that is the basis for this new play, "In The Body of the World."

Artistic Director Diane Paulus and the A.R.T. offered her a creative home in Cambridge, and found funding to underwrite a residency to allow the playwright to develop her memoir into a play.  She worked closely with Ms. Paulus and the A.R.T. staff to condense 5 hours of material into a more manageable 90-100 minutes, to be followed by a unique Act II each evening in which subject matter experts from a wide variety of related fields would engage the audience in a talk back and Q&A sessions in response to the play.

The gorgeous set that the audience first sees, designed by Myung Hee Cho, is meant to suggest Ms. Ensler's loft, where much of the collaborative work took place between Ensler and Paulus in refining this work of art.  At a dramatic moment at the end of the evening, the set morphs magically into a living and breathing rain forest.  This is such a brilliant concept, for what Eve Ensler has created in her memoir and in this play is in fact the literary equivalent of a triple canopy rain forest.
  • At the top level is her concern for the ecological rape of our environment, leaving fissures in sky and sea and land from which vital fluids leak.  The diagnosis of her cancer coincided with the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and she ties these events together dramatically, and graphically with the aid of brilliant projections by Finn Ross.
  • The second layer of the metaphorical rain forest is the global crisis of violence against women and girls.  As part of the play, Eve recounts a horrific event that happened in Africa when a group of soldiers committed unspeakable atrocities upon women and children in a particular village.  It was to bring healing to women who are victims of these kinds of unthinkable atrocities that City of Joy was founded.
  • Finally, the third layer is that of Eve's own body, a war zone between cancer cells and toxic chemotherapy.  Another poignant moment in this play is Eve's description of a conversation she had with a mentor who counseled her to view the poisonous chemo chemicals as waging war within her body against all the violence and abuse that she had suffered over the years. With that reframing of the chemo experience, Eve was able to turn dread into determined resolve. Once again, brilliant projections by Mr. Ross enabled the audience to make a visceral connection between themselves and the story that Eve was weaving.
Beginning with "Vagina Monologues," Eve has been willing to bare her body - literally and metaphorically - to use as a teaching tool to instruct and to inspire women (and men, if they are able to hear).  "In The Body of the World" follows in the footsteps of prior works. As an actor and performer, Eve takes great risks, but those risks make the telling of her three-layered story all the more poignant and impactful. As a Director, Diane Paulus has empowered Eve to tell her tale with nothing held back, and the result is theater as it was meant to be - visually arresting, intellectually challenging and emotionally cathartic. In addition to the brilliant set and projections, the lighting design by Jen Schriever and soundscape by M.L. Dogg enhance the overall experience.

One thread that weaves its way through each work of art that Diane Paulus directs is her commitment to find creative ways to pierce the fourth wall and to engage audiences directly in the experience of theater.  In the case of "In The Body of the World," she accomplishes that purpose by inviting audience members to come on stage between the main play and Act II and to walk among the rain forest that has been created at the Loeb.  A play that has focused for much of the evening on the possibility of death - of our ecosystem, of women and girls across the globe, and of Eve's physical body - now becomes an exercise in celebrating the possibility of new life.  The rain forest lives and breathes, as does our hope for a new and better world - in part because of the commitment of activists like Eve Ensler and her sisters in Cambridge, in the DNC and beyond.
Act II on Opening Night featured a conversation moderated by A.R.T. Dramaturg, Ryan McKittrick and involved Monique Wilson, Director of One Billion Rising and climate activist Naomi Klein, author of "This Changes Everything."

This extraordinary evening of theater is more than entertainment.  It is education, it is challenge, it is chemotherapy for the soul.  It may burn, but it will also heal.  And it is not to be missed. Through May 29th.

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