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Eve Ensler's The Good Body

More Body, Less Vagina

Five years ago, the word "vagina" kaboomed itself out of stagey whispers and into the very heart of the American milieu. With that, Eve Ensler went from being a theater nobody to a feminist playwright with global clout. Sometimes candid, sometimes tongue in cheek, and always extraordinary, Ensler's Vagina Monologues had a snowball effect being performed in more than 30 countries and translated into 28 languages. Now, after her infamous musings have accrued a gaggle of vagina aficionados and achieved a critical mass of performers (college drama classes and Hollywood debutantes alike), Ensler has turned her gaze to an area above rather than below her navel: her stomach.

Eve Ensler's latest piece, The Good Body, is an erudite and, of course, funny look at the way women of all cultures and backgrounds are compelled to nip, tuck, tighten, and lop off parts of their bodies in order to fit in and be "good". Part of Ensler's appeal lies in her harrowing, bare to the bone style of writing. The script is largely autobiographical, based on Ensler's own struggles with the mortality of suppleness (in the form of a belly that looks pretty damn supple, despite arguments to the contrary), but it's also a script that includes years of research and a series of intimate conversations with women from over the world; conversations that took place in locker rooms, cell blocks, self-help circles, offices, and bedrooms. Ensler represents women of all stripes and persuasions, from Beverly Hills to Bombay. Framing the stories around her own self-interrogatory journey toward bodily acceptance, Ensler considers women living under burkahs, undergoing Botox shots, subsisting in "fat" camps, and emerging from the fog of adolescence with mistrust and pain.

It's an intelligent attempt to question the source of women's obsession with obtaining physical perfection. For Ensler, the empire of diets, cosmetic surgery, and beauty enhancement (the performance is kicked off with a flashy slide show full of images of billboard babes and teensy-weensy fashion models) is supported by the longstanding precept of women's duty and goodness. Ensler asserts that "to be good, you must behave. Don't eat, wear painful shoes, don't grow old…Worry about this stuff, and let men rule the world."

Ensler speedily moves from a "vaginal laser rejuvenation center", where American women pay to have their vaginas surgically tightened, to India, Africa, and Afghanistan. She also portrays Cosmopolitan magazine founder Helen Gurley Brown (whose beauty was purportedly disavowed by her own mother) and actress/model Isabella Rossellini, who was dropped by Lancome advertising mavens when she got "too old".

The Good Body is full of sketches of women who are at battle with both their ambivalence as outsiders and their corresponding desire to be good, desirable, and acceptable. Ensler herself, who was physically and sexually abused by her father and spent her adolescence coping with suicidal tendencies and alcoholism, insists that her proclivity for comparison began with her mother: "She was blonde and glowed. In her pack of golden puppies I was dark and hairy."

As the performance wends on, Ensler seems less and less like she's taking a reactionary stance against the "powers that be" that incontrovertibly damage female self-esteem; rather, the enemy is often close to home. Ensler's performance brims over with stories about judgmental mothers, abusive fathers, and oblivious husbands.

Humor has always been Ensler's modus operandi for transforming personal torment into highly watchable theater, but some of the most powerful moments in her performance are the least affected. Bernice, a teenager in "fat camp", resentfully upbraids "skinny bitches" and admits that "fat girls do everything double. We have to be funny. Fat girls give the best head. Fat girls always swallow." When Bernice sneaks out at night to go "chunky dunking" with her friends, she comes to a stunning realization under the soft moonlight: "We were beautiful." It's a subtle moment of resistance, but it's full of wonder and hope.

Swept along by the momentum of her narrative, Ensler is a versatile performer, given to brilliant improvisatory sweeps and dramatic fracas. Despite its ambitious attempt to chart women's experiences across divides of culture and class, The Good Body is not without its failings. Ensler's work is fraught with a combination of pathos and humor- sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Unfortunately, Ensler's commendable attempts to represent women in diverse social conditions sometimes come across as awkward. When Ensler hits you over the head with the insidious effects of cultural capitalism (as with the anorexic Masai girl from Kenya who dreams of having a 90210 zip code), something about these stories doesn't ring quite true, in contrast to other more complex, understated accounts.

Part rebel yell and part consoling gesture, it is Ensler's final reconciliation with her body that is the most therapeutic and intense. But body image is hardly an unobserved topic. Navel-gazing is an allegation that Ensler has often been hit with, and her brand of "radical activism" has been attacked as retrograde theater, naïve and sentimental ruminations that trivialize women's issues. Ensler herself feels that the women's movement has remained stagnant in its refusal to "land on the body".

So, is The Good Body irrational and self-indulgent? At times, perhaps. But insignificant? Not a chance. That much of Ensler's work is merely a sexy revamping of old clichés is a valid assessment, but the point of her accounts is not to shed light on a timeless predicament; rather, the fact that not much has changed in the love/hate relationship women have with their bodies is what makes The Good Body so entertaining and so frustratingly relevant.

The Good Body plays through July 25
Performed at American Conservatory Theater
Geary Theater
415 Geary Street @ Mason
Box Office Phone: 415.749.2ACT