‘Vagina Monologues’ playwright explores
by dan pine, staff writer
other parts in one-woman show
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Even after the worldwide success of her Obie-winning play "The Vagina Monologues," Eve Ensler still struggles with the body impolitic.
The celebrated actress-playwright, born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, sees herself as "a Jewish being. My mother looked like Doris Day. I was a dead ringer for Anne Frank. I came out Jewish." But when it came to her self-image, there were times when Ensler felt even heaven couldn't help her.
Her new one-woman show "The Good Body" opens Wednesday, July 7, at San Francisco's Geary Theater after a week of previews. In the play, presented by ACT, Ensler picks up where "The Vagina Monologues" left off, excoriating society's illusory ideal of female perfection.
Says Ensler: "It's based on how women shape and reshape, hide, vary, mutilate and transform their bodies in order to fit into their culture, and the underlying drive to be good."
That obsession to be good and look good begins at home. Much of Ensler's play is autobiographical, charting the playwright's personal battles with
the try-on room mirror, especially regarding another one of her body parts: her belly.
"I will vanquish ice cream," intones Ensler in the play's opening sequence. "I will visualize flat abs and do sit-ups and curls past the point of burning. I will see chocolate as poison and pasta as a form of self-punishment."
However, "The Good Body" is more than Ensler's story alone. Over the course of the play, Ensler goes global with the body-image problem. She takes on the personas of multiple characters, from a 12-year-old Kenyan girl who wants to look like the Dolce & Gabanna stick figures on "Beverly Hills 90210" to Isabella Rossellini, the celebrated actress dropped as a skin-care products spokeswoman after she got "too old."
Ensler even plays a verklempt fortysomething Jewish housewife who undergoes genital tightening surgery to please her aging, virility-challenged husband ("The last time I saw him that excited was at Ethan's bar mitzvah," says the character).
"Some of them are made up," says Ensler, "and some are real, like [Cosmopolitan magazine guru] Helen Gurley Brown. I would hear pieces of stories, hear an idea, and make up a character. All have seeds in truth."
Ensler wrote the play over a period of three years, workshopping it at a theater festival on the Croatian island of Brioni, and most recently at the Seattle Repertory.
The San Francisco world premiere production is the most elaborate yet, utilizing complex lighting, backdrops, costumes and set, all under the direction of Peter Askin.
"Peter did 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' and all the John Leguizamo shows," says Ensler. "I'm in awe of what he's done. But all the designers on the show have heightened, expanded and illuminated what's going on."
Illumination of women's issues has been Ensler's dominant artistic mission. Based on interviews with 200 women about their sexual experiences, "The Vagina Monologues" catapulted Ensler to worldwide fame. The play was translated into dozens of languages and ran in theaters all over the world, including sold-out runs off-Broadway and on London's West End. Her other plays include "Lemonade," "The Depot," "Extraordinary Measures" and "Scooncat."
Ensler has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship Award in playwriting, the Berrilla-Kerr Award for playwriting and the Elliot Norton Award for outstanding solo performance.
Her success in the theater led to what she considers her most significant achievement to date: launching V-Day, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to combating violence against women around the world.
"It's a vagina miracle," she says. "The only thing that means something in the long run is the impact of V-Day. We raised over $26 million and had 2,300 performances to stop violence."
Despite the acclaim and accolades, Ensler readily admits success has not spoiled her.
Far from it.
"When I finished 'Vagina Monologues,' I had this fantasy I'd be in the clear," she says. "I thought, 'I liked my vagina, I worked it all out.' Then I looked down and saw my stomach. If you have self-hatred, it's in you."
However, rather than fork over big bucks to psychoanalysts, Ensler tends to work out her problems on stage in front of adoring audiences. Unorthodox, yes, but it seems to work for her.
"I am sane because of it," she says. "I don't know what I'd be if I didn't have this outlet. I have had moments where I liked my body, and when you get a feel for something, you can grow it. If this play does anything, I hope people will have a moment to love their bodies."
"The Good Body," written by and starring Eve Ensler, runs Wednesday, July 7, through Sunday, July 25, at the Geary Theater, 405 Geary St., S.F. Tickets: $11-$68. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sfbay.org.
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