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Our Bodies, Ourselves 

The Vagina Monologues could use more soliloquy and less moralizing

Wednesday, Nov 15 2000
In a story published last month in The New Yorker, John Updike gently prods The Vagina Monologues. An annoying Updike character named Georgie tells a woman called Annabelle about "the most amazing production I've seen lately," which "has the rather embarrassing title "The Vagina Monologues.' ... It's really more serious than it sounds. It's about us and our bodies. All of us."

As usual, Updike has captured a moment in American time: What Georgie says about Eve Ensler's production is what everyone says about it. Even Ensler says it. "My vagina," she effuses on behalf of one character, in the evening's most blatant statement of theme. "My vagina. Me." Now, if a man launched a solo show trumpeting his penis with so much insistent self-identification ("Yo! My dick! Look at me!"), he'd be labeled a pig and demoted to some kind of college fraternity circuit. Ensler, though, has been lauded around the world. Since The Vagina Monologues premiered in Greenwich Village four years ago, it has toured across the U.S. and as far east as Jerusalem, with Ensler receiving thunderous ovations and bouquets of flowers for trying to create a community of women and men who can discuss vaginas freely.

Is this necessary? We are, by now, in the year 2000. The Vagina Monologues sounds like a show that came late to the sexual-revolution party. America can seem schizophrenic, though. A recent stop in Oklahoma City earned Monologues the rare distinction of being forced underground when local newspapers refused to list the title. Devoted women handed out fliers in shopping centers (whispering, "The Vagina Monologues, honey, here, put this in your purse"). By the third night, as Ensler explains in the show, her warehouse performance space was packed. "Women love to talk about their vaginas," she says. "Mostly because nobody ever asked them."

Ensler, luckily, is a funny woman. The Monologues consist of stories culled from hundreds of interviews with strangers about their vaginas. Ensler performs a few of them straight and molds others into stagy shapes, like survey-answer lists (Q: "What would your vagina wear?" A: "Glasses.") or chanting, impressionistic poetry. The truer she stays to her fieldwork, the better. Narcissism veils this show like a fog, and the monologues work best when Ensler abandons her sometimes-didactic stage persona to give us her subjects' personalities.

An old Jewish woman who stopped thinking about her vagina decades ago tells the painful, hilarious story of how she embarrassed herself in front of an unsympathetic boyfriend by getting overexcited on his car's leather seat. (The date marked the end of her sex life.) A pert British woman talks about finding her clitoris; a wife discusses the hassle and pain of shaving her pubic hair for her husband. A homeless woman runs through a litany of terrible childhood memories, including sexual abuse, then tells the surprising story of her gentle, ecstatic lesbian awakening. This material is rich, partly because strangers' sex lives make excellent gossip, but also because the sheer amount of denial, confusion, and fear surrounding vaginas -- even now -- is astonishing.

Ensler sits alone on a stool, with a microphone and a glass of water, speaking in a crisp, amused voice meant to disarm the audience. ("I bet you're worried," she says at the start. "I was worried.") She teases the crowd's trepidation with frank talk about rape, or gynecological exams, or her own rediscovery of the word "cunt." ("Feeling a little irritated in the airport? Just say "cunt.' Everything changes.") Her San Francisco audiences tend to be smart and fashionable, anxious to be open-minded but still worried what strangers will think, so the discomfort rippling through the seats during the "cunt" routine on opening night was satisfying.

Some routines are weak, however. A poem of fragmented images inspired by women raped in the Bosnian war has a cheap urgency that undermines its own serious topic. Ensler's chanting rhythm in this and two other spoken-word pieces feels false, and reminds me of why I don't go to poetry slams. The poetry itself is overheated. From a piece on childbirth: "I was there in the room when the contractions made her crawl on all fours ... and made her moan from her pores." In these monologues it isn't clear whether Ensler wants to connect with us or just hear herself chant.

Still, she has accomplished her goal. People feel liberated by Ensler because she has the guts and the grace to speak wittily about a sensitive, awkward subject. I just wanted more monologues. After hundreds of interviews, Ensler offers only 10 or so good stories plus a political variety show. It would be stronger in every way if she concentrated less on variety and more on bringing the untold stories to life. Your vagina is not you, Eve. Finding your clitoris is a form of self-discovery -- of course -- but it's only a splendid beginning.


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