Gender Mender

Through 'Vagina Monologues,' playwright Eve Ensler talks the talk of anti-violence, inspiring thousands to walk the walk.

March 07, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Who'd have thought it?

Baltimore and The Vagina Monologues are practically made for each other.

Indeed, where this provocatively titled show is concerned, Eve Ensler, its creator, describes Charm City as "verging on a holiday zone."

Ensler bases her assessment on two appearances in Baltimore - in 1998 at Center Stage, when the show was still a work-in-progress, and in 2000 at the Feminist Expo at the Convention Center, when, as she recounts in the introduction to the published script, "4,000 wild women" chanted the word "vagina."

"I thought at that point it would be the biggest scene I'd ever seen," Ensler enthusiastically recalls. "Then Madison Square Garden happened." She's referring to the V-Day event - part of a movement to end violence against women - that took place in New York in 2001, when 18,000 women chanted the word.

The Vagina Monologues - which opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday - started out modestly as a one-woman show based on interviews Ensler conducted with more than 200 women around the world about the joys, fears, pain and pleasure they associated with their sexuality.

Since then, the show has become an international phenomenon, spawning V-Day, a movement that this year includes 800 charitable events from Manila to Mexico City. Scheduled to take place from January through April on college campuses, in theaters and even on a Sioux reservation, V-Day 2002 is expected to raise up to $7 million for organizations working to protect women.

And that's not to mention the show's regular productions - the long-running off-Broadway version and the touring companies, which typically feature three actresses. Among the nearly 100 women who have performed the play in New York are Diahann Carroll, Linda Ellerbee, Hayley Mills, Alanis Morissette, Brooke Shields and Marlo Thomas. Baltimore audiences will see Amy J. Carle, Melissa Leo and Michele Shay. An HBO special, starring Ensler and including interviews with women of various ages and ethnicities, aired last month.

At the vortex of all this V-activity is 48-year-old Ensler, a woman described by Time magazine as "America's best feminist" and by The New Yorker as "a kind of Anna Deavere Smith of the nether regions."

No one is more surprised by the proliferation of The Vagina Monologues than Ensler herself. "Vagina miracles abound. I had no idea it would take off like this," she says by cell phone on her way to New York's JFK Airport. Her whirlwind travel schedule is another indication of the show's prodigious reach.

On Monday, she boarded a plane to participate in a V-Day event in Macedonia. The previous week she was home in New York attending the opening of her new off-Broadway play, Necessary Targets, which takes place at a refugee camp in Bosnia. Before that, she was in the Philippines. And after Macedonia, she'll spend a week in Kabul.

Ensler's visit to Kabul will be her second in 18 months. The first trip was part of a research-gathering expedition for her next monologue show, The Good Body, "about how [women] mutilate, fix, hide their bodies to fit into their various cultures. I couldn't do it without talking to the women of Afghanistan, who were essentially disembodied," she explains.

Ensler wore a burqa during that initial trip, removing it only as she was leaving, and even that was too soon. "We got pulled over by the squad that fosters virtue and prevents vice," she says. "I almost got flogged."

This time around she shouldn't need a burqa, and she's not planning to do research. Instead, her trip is a follow-up to a conference of 40 Afghan women that she organized in Brussels in December. She'll also meet with members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an underground resistance organization that receives a percentage of funds raised by V-Day.

"I'm really going as a representative of V-Day and as a woman deeply concerned that the women of Afghanistan are going to be forgotten if we don't put a lot of attention on them now," she says.

Nor is Afghanistan the only war-torn nation Ensler has visited. In 1994, she interviewed Bosnian women for The Vagina Monologues. Her play Necessary Targets also stemmed from those interviews. An account of two American women, a psychiatrist and a trauma counselor, who travel to a refugee camp, the play has drawn mixed reviews.

"It's going to be mixed because it's a very political piece. It's women, it's war," she says. Audience response, however, "has been unbelievable. People are weeping, standing up," she says. "I think since Sept. 11 we are all hungry for a place to grieve and a place to think about our relationship to the rest of the world. I think the play is allowing that."

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