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About 10 years ago, I began seeing my first therapist. He was middle-aged, bald, and as round as the Pillsbury Doughboy. In the course of our discussions, which touched on my feelings of disappointment about my own looks, his indignation rose up: he had no use for people who might make up their minds about him based on his physical appearance. On that occasion, I felt — and whenever I meet those exceedingly rare men and women who don’t care how others perceive the contours of their bodies, still feel — an intense envy. They live in the same, image-obsessed, movie-starred, cover-boy/cover-girl-saturated Western enclave I do. How have they managed to transcend the lifelong assault on their carnal identities?
That’s the rock face Eve Ensler scales in The Good Body, which Broadway Series South is presenting Nov. 29-Dec. 4 in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC. This one-woman show is the writer-actor’s follow-up to The Vagina Monologues. As is usual with this extraordinarily funny and exceptionally humane playwright, The Good Body contains moments as breathtaking as a mountain vista, observations so wry you laugh out loud before you’ve had time to distill their deeper meanings, and images so sharp they hurt.
Eve Ensler is that astounding rarity, the artist who puts her money where her mouth is. We’ve all rolled our eyes at parlor liberal movie stars wearing pins of multi-various colors but stopping short of actual commitment. (I exempt from this indictment Tom Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and George Clooney, who raise or spend their own money to make the movies that express their concerns.) Ensler, having seen The Vagina Monologues explode into an international phenomenon — 2,300 productions in some 1,000 cities this year alone — established the global V-Day foundation, raising between $25 and $30 million (the figures vary depending on what you read) to combat the appalling violence perpetrated daily against women and girls the world over. Of how many actors, or playwrights, can anything comparable be said? When I heard Ensler speak to the Commonwealth Club a few years back, she became my instant hero — the person I want to be when I grow up.
The Good Body, alas, has not been as successful as its predecessor. There’s no way it could be, perhaps — but even on opening night here in Raleigh, Ensler played to a house noticeably less than full. Perhaps this new work lacks the immediate shock value, or titillation, promised by a title containing the dread word “vagina.” Does “body” seem more mundane, more … prosaic? Do we, collectively, still think of women as walking vaginas, divorced from the bodies that house them? (Yet paradoxically still judged by that very same vessel.) Thirty-odd years ago, Fat Is a Feminist Issue and Our Bodies, Ourselves were massive bestsellers, books I saw on the shelves of every young woman I knew. Their new editions scarcely raise a yawn.
The essence of Ensler’s performance resides in the last words of the preface she wrote for the published text: “LOVE YOUR BODY. STOP FIXING IT. It was never broken.” If that seems harder than it sounds to you, it’s no less difficult for Ensler herself. Having come to terms with her vagina, she says, “I discovered that my self-hatred has just moved up into my stomach.” She’s hardly alone. Even Roseanne, the closest thing American television has had to a militant feminist, worries about her weight and indulges in rhinoplasty (reminding me of the remark the half-Jewish Dorothy Parker made when Fannie Brice had her nose-job: “She cut off her nose to spite her race.”)
Ensler intones Buddhist-like prayers for thinness; discovers that at 80 Helen Gurley Brown can’t quite accept her husband David’s thinking of her as beautiful (“That doesn’t count — I mean, he loves me”); Isabella Rossellini, livid at having been banished from modeling for the sin of turning 40 (“They sent me so many flowers, I knew I was dead”); clothing stores that house their “plus sizes in the back, like porn”; a Beverly Hills matron seeking vaginal reconstruction in the forlorn hope that, if she gets that right, her husband will start paying attention to her sexual needs; a Puerto Rican woman obsessed with what she calls her “spread”; the wife of a plastic surgeon who has made re-creating her his bone-chilling life’s ambition; and an Italian woman whose anguish over how her “terrible” nascent adolescent breasts ruined her life pushes her to self-mutilation.
Yet Ensler finds signs of hopefulness, too: the hilariously profane, proto-feminist African-American teenager at a fat farm who indulges in what she calls “chunky-dipping” in the pool; the Indian woman who delights in being jadhi (fat); the elderly Masai who expresses good-humored dismay at the caloric intake of Americans (“You either eat too much, or not at all”) while Africa starves; and — most astonishingly, and hopefully — the Afghani woman who risks her life to eat vanilla ice cream, clandestinely, the way an American might court arrest for indulging in a back-room snort of cocaine.
The defiance is shattering; the dramatic image is beyond the redemptive. Eve Ensler has that effect on you.
Broadway Series South presents Eve Ensler’s The Good Body Thursday-Friday, Dec. 1-2, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 3, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 4, at 2 and 7 p.m. in A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $32.50-$44.50. Progress Energy Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates (for groups of 20 or more): 919/857-4565 or http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2005-2006/group.html#good [inactive 2/06]. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2005-2006/specials.html#good [inactive 2/06. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=388459. Eve Ensler: http://www.vday.org/contents/vday/aboutvday/eveensler [inactive 1/06]. The Tour: http://thegoodbody.com/ [inactive 9/07]. The Book: http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780812974737 [inactive 12/08]. V-Day: http://www.vday.org/ [inactive 1/06].