I suspect I wasn't the only man who felt like something of a penis-wielding intruder at "The Vagina Monologues". This is not a show about only vaginas, of course, but about women. It's appropriate and relevant to anyone, male or female, who genuinely wants to better understand what it means to be a woman. And what it means to have a vagina.
The fact that it is funny, by turns touching, insightful, elegant, crude, sexy, political and simply human makes it all the more accessible. Of course, by telling us from the title on that we're going to be talking about things that aren't usually talked about (even by many women), it's understood that we're going to be sharing the sorts of intimate experiences that define women, both as individuals and within society. The result of hundreds of interviews, the variety and distinctiveness of these pieces give us particular insight into what being female means, and what it has meant to be each of these women. The evening is well balanced, nicely paced, and entertaining at the same time that it's moving and important.
Near the top of the show there's a wonderful bit about how difficult it can be for a woman to simply see her own vagina. Like much of the show, it is superficially funny while at the same time making the point that by actually taking the time and effort to see and understand this most intimate of female places, this physical center of self, another perspective on one's larger identity is also possible. The anxiety, the secrecy, the sense of being somehow wrong, or offensive, or simply inappropriate, all that is set aside by the discovery of how common all those responses are. By stating what has gone unsaid, looking where they have not looked, women make it easier for the rest of us to know them. This is a liberating show in the best possible sense. It makes the world less constrained, less inhibited, less forbidden. It exposes women, not in any lascivious way, but in their being.
Because this is a book-in-hand, three stool show, it invites a certain amount of celebrity casting. In this case, the two veterans of the national tour, Tracey A. Leigh and Amy Love are joined for the first week by Shirley Knight, in the second week by Heart singer Ann Wilson, and by an as yet to be announced performer for the final week. It's pure speculation, of course, to guess how later performers will do, but given that the show is so securely supported by the two veterans, it should be fine. Shirley Knight is clearly a seasoned pro, and often brought a moving conviction to her readings, but not a lot of star power. She was at her best playing a 72 year old woman whose relationship with her "basement", and a certain problem with "flooding", had led her to avoid it as much as possible. In that extended monologue, Ms. Knight was touching and familiar and very warm. Like any woman you might know, and that was rather the problem. It wasn't that I expected any kind of grandstanding, and in many ways the script benefited from a slightly more "ordinary" woman, but the "featured" performer was rather frequently outdone by the two "no names".
Amy Love played a monologue on the crudest term for the female genitalia with such unrestrained enthusiasm and inventive energy that she had the whole house breaking down the barriers and joining in. Likewise, Tracey A. Leigh did a piece on the sounds of ecstatic moaning which was both hilariously recognizable, and impossible to imagine on the page. These two women really carry the show, setting the tone and pace and easy familiarity of the whole evening, as well as convincingly creating both the drama and the sobriety of the more painful and difficult subjects. An excruciating piece on what it has meant to be a woman, to have a vagina, in Bosnia, was a particularly brilliant example. We seem to need celebrity names on the marquee to sell out large houses like this, but it seems to me that any other actress on the level of these two would have made for an equally, if not more, successful evening.
Director Abby Epstein clearly knows and understands this material, and she certainly knows how to pace the evening. The three women maintained a warm, respectful and invitingly collegial atmosphere. The scripts are all well delivered, with dignity, humor and affection, and they clearly speak to their intended audience. On this night, that audience was enthusiastically on its feet at the end of the evening. "The Vagina Monologues" has an important message to share, and it delivers it with style, power and a uniquely female beauty.
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