I'm a bit worried -- when you're as twisted as I am and find yourself reviewing a show called The Vagina Monologues, you realize that the potential for truly tasteless jokes is staggering. Let's proceed and find out just how raised my consciousness really is.
Playwright Eve Ensler made her reputation with this piece. Traveling the world, Ensler talked with women about a subject lots of women (and most men) never talk about -- vaginas. What they are, and aren't, what they look like, feel like, smell like; how they function and how they don't and, most importantly, what they mean. With editorial shaping and dramaturgical fashioning, these thoughts are compressed into an intermissionless evening, with three actresses recreating the stories as well as throwing out occasional facts and figures.
First performed by the playwright (as a one-woman show) in 1996, Vagina has gone on to global notoriety; every year the piece is performed around Valentine's Day -- at college campuses and other venues -- raising funds and awareness to combat violence against women. (The current figure is an extremely impressive $50 million.)
And it's not at all difficult to understand this enduring popularity. On a fundamental level, it's amazingly refreshing to see a show that's about something: This is theater with an explicit message not dressed up in (or watered down with) poetic constructs and theatrical metaphor. The playwright and the women interviewed have information they want to deliver.
And with humor, passion, compassion and unadorned awe, that story is communicated directly to the audience. Ensler's point is that if women are generally hidden away in the culture, that invisibility is exponentially true for the very thing that defines their femaleness. The point is made again and again that women have been trained (sometimes brutally so) to remain as unfamiliar with their genitalia as with the topography of the moon. In Vagina, the women (and ultimately the audience) are brought to understand not just the essential importance of "down there," but also to an honest-to-God celebration of its reality. One of Ensler's many interesting points is that the clitoris is the only sexual organ (either male or female) that has no other purpose except sexual pleasure … which may be a very big reason for the global epidemic of genital mutilation.
Following its achievement a year ago with another Ensler play, The Good Body, City Theatre tackles Vagina with equal success. Tracey Brigden directs with the same clear-eyed honesty Ensler employed when she wrote it. Acknowledging the initial skittishness any audience will bring into the theater, Brigden and her remarkable cast -- Erica Bradshaw, Holli Hamilton and Laurie Klatscher -- begin lightly then quickly move into a full-throated attack mode. Turning on a dime, this cast, director and script can flip from outrageous humor to haunting poignancy and back again.
I never thought I'd say this, but I love Vagina.
The Vagina Monologues continues through Feb. 17. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. 412-431-2489 or www.citytheatrecompany.org
- From left to right: Erica Bradshaw, Holli Hamilton, Laurie Klatscher in The Vagina Monologues at City Theatre. Photo courtesy of John Schisler.