Eve Ensler performing In the Body of the World, directed by Diane Paulus, at the American Repertory Theater.
Eve Ensler performing In the Body of the World, directed by Diane Paulus, at the American Repertory Theater.
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

Eve Ensler has spent her life uniting women worldwide, urging them to take control of their bodies and their lives. Famed as the creator of The Vagina Monologues, author of numerous plays and books, and tireless traveler for women's causes, Ensler faced a personal crisis in 2007, when she was diagnosed with Stage III/IV uterine cancer.

In her published memoir, In the Body of the World, she described her response to the disease, its treatment, and the effect it had on her personal relationships. She drew parallels to her emotional investment in leading the efforts to build City of Joy, a woman's shelter for the victims of rape and abuse in the terrible wars of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ensler was subjected to dehumanizing hospital stays, including a visit from an incredibly demeaning doctor, and the pain and indignities inflicted by surgery, chemotherapy, and a body fighting the side effects of the toxic poisons injected into her veins. At the same time, she was on the phone to the Congo, trying to troubleshoot the myriad problems plaguing the project.

Appearing nightly at the American Repertory Theater as solo performer in her adaptation of her memoir, In the Body of the World, Ensler holds the audience rapt for 90 minutes. She and her visionary director, Diane Paulus, prove to be a powerful storytelling team. The performance is staged on a simple set, studded by a few pieces of furniture (set and costume design by Myung Hee Cho). Ensler moves the chaise longue and chairs to suggest a hospital room, the chemotherapy treatment center, and her mother's hospital room in Florida. The changing locales are backed by technicolor projections (by Finn Ross) and music and sound effects (by M.L. Dogg).

Now cured, Ensler sees her illness as a metaphor for the violence facing all women, but especially those in the Congo. She also equates her early indifference and fear of the symptoms she ignored too long to the global avoidance of the devastating signs of climate change: oil spills that affect the environment, widespread droughts and floods, careless removal of forests for commercial gain — the damage of which will be felt for generations to come. The lush, green tree outside her hospital room window becomes a symbol of hope for her, and for the world.

The dramatic presentation also includes many personal stories about Ensler's reconciliation with the sister, who came to care for her; Ensler's approach to her once distant mother, now elderly and sick; and painful memories of her alcoholic "country-club" father. Ensler does not shy away from telling all, whether about her family or the terrors perpetrated by the marauding soldiers on the women of the Congo. However, the evening is not without laughs, sometimes brought on by the self-deprecating episodes she relates, but also her spot-on sense of timing and Paulus' careful build to a visual surprise.

While storytelling is at the center of the performance, sometimes it is not left to stand on its own as it should. Too many projections are overblown and prolonged, while some of the music adds melodrama when it isn't necessary. Even the final scene is a bit over the top. If ever there were a stage performer who matched emotions to her message, it's Ensler. But she needs only the boards and her passionate voice to move an audience.