Written and Performed by Eve Ensler
Production Supervised by Joe Mantello
Westside Arts / Downstairs / 407 West 43rd Street / (212) 307-4100

Reviewed by David Spencer

The gift of "The Vagina Monologues" is that, even if you’re hip enough not to really need its particular brand of enlightenment, there’s a good deal more going on here than preaching to the choirloft. In some ways, I think those who go to see this anthology created, written and performed by Eve Ensler, may be witness to one of the most important feminist manifestos of the last several decades.

First of all, there is something ultimately candid about an evening that so directly lives up to such a title. For in fact, the thesis behind the collection is that the vagina is the very center of womanhood, and that how it’s treated, both mentally and physically–by parents, lovers, violators and even owners–likewise goes a long way toward defining the quality of life a woman has the capacity to lead, indeed toward defining the very nature and health of her spirit. (Someone I know glibly suggested a complementary anthology called "The Penis Profiles", but upon reflection, contemporary culture is already full of those; the validation of the male imperative is implicit in a preponderance of entertainment and literature–and, in a manner more tacit than Ms. Ensler’s theatrical declaration, attests to the fact that men are just as defined by "the package," loathe though the breed often is to admit it in quite so vulnerable a fashion.)

The vagina monologues are culled from years of interviews with women of all strata, condition, age and socio-economic environment. By the author-performer’s own admission, some of the material is taken from verbatim transcript, some are collages of multiple interviews, some are creative extensions and extrapolations that expand upon the raw material.

In an interview with Hal Holbrook (to be found in William Goldman’s book The Season), the actor discussed his approach to the one man show "Mark Twain Tonight!" His first mission, he said, was to throw the audience off-guard, have them "laughing their asses off" at the humorous, ribald and irreverent Twain they didn’t know, thus de-mystifying the spectre of a literary icon, earning the trust and respect of the audience before venturing into more serious and profound waters later. Thus it is with Ms. Ensler.

An attractive woman of–so it seemed to me–perfectly average proportion, with a dark brunette pageboy cut and a deceptively guileless face, she occupies a stool in front of a microphone, a position she never leaves for the entirety of the show’s intermissionless 95 minutes. On her lap are a pile of large index cards: whether they actually hold the show’s contents or are merely a signature prop she has retained after years of performing the show is impossible to know; she rarely looks down at them, but does use them for punctuation, a growing pile of discards on a nearby side table as she makes her way through each individual piece.

At first, she disarms. The humor is irreverent, subversive, uncompromisingly female and unabashedly liberated. And it informs not only her introductory comments, but first few pieces as well. (In what is–in retrospect–a brilliant coup de theatre, her first monologue is actually quite sad: the tale of a fiftyish woman whose first high school boyfriend was so repulsed by the rush of moisture that escaped her when they kissed in his car, that she never again risked the humiliation of intimacy. But the subject tells her story with such vigorous anger, and thoroughly rationalized defensiveness, that it is, ironically quite funny: many in the audience found it screamingly so. The duality of light and dark is also ever-present in the evening.)

From there, Ms. Ensler takes on progressively deeper subject matter, until arriving at a haunting collage, culled from South American women who suffered not "just" abuse, but genuinely horrifying and repeated atrocities in prison camps.

Having examined the societal restraints, blown apart the myths and examined the depths of despair, Ms. Ensler spends the last third of the show celebrating the vagina as a source of empowerment: the center of pleasure, of self worth, of life itself as the birth process is graphically described, as the speaker of the final monologue–this the author/performer herself, as herself–recounting how she witnessed the birth of a friend’s baby. "I was there!" is her awe-filled refrain.

Though "The Vagina Monologues" is, first and foremost, a feminist tract, it is, coming up a very close second, a humanist one as well. No question the women in the audience laugh harder and more often than the men–the women have an exclusive club membership we guys can’t share no matter how understanding we are–but Ms. Ensler takes great care not to ostracize the males either. Though "The Vagina Monologues" certainly contains stories in which ignorant and insensitive males play a part, it also pauses to acknowledge the healing wonders of the sensitive, enlightened male (the name "Bob" becomes a particularly giddy euphemism), and never classifies MEN as a one-size-fits-all group, as a THEM. Though we’re not at all the subject at hand, we’re clearly welcome guests at the clubhouse, and Ms. Ensler–tacitly, but unmistakably–sees us as individuals to be taken on our own terms, just as she would hope we do the same for women in turn.

"The Vagina Monologues" only quietly breaks new ground as theatre: it does take the one-performer show to a slightly different realm, its anthology nature beholden to no other collection in style or structure. But I think, much more conspicuously, it may break new ground in the cause of human understanding. And–this is meant with utter sincerity–I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that those who attend with open minds and hearts, whether needful of guidance or already educated, will find that, when it’s over, they will be forever unable to think of vaginas, what they are and what they meanto the human spirit, in quite the same way again…

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