There was much cheer at this show

Review: `The Vagina Monologues' creates a festive mood among audience members.

March 14, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It's safe to say the Mechanic Theatre has never seen anything like this.

During Tuesday's opening night performance of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, there were times when the atmosphere was more like a rock concert than a play. The audience chanted (a four-letter word - not printable in a family newspaper - for a part of the female anatomy); they broke into spontaneous applause, and at times even called out to the performers.

Predominantly female and younger than usual at this theater, the audience might well have been the constituency at a convention of the National Organization for Women. It's a logical comparison, since in many ways The Vagina Monologues is a throwback to the days when NOW was young - the high tide of women's liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Based on more than 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women, the show is a collection of monologues delivered by three actresses - in this case, Amy J. Carle, Melissa Leo and Michele Shay - seated on tall stools and speaking into microphones. As they explain, some of the monologues are verbatim and some are composites.

A few sound like chapters from the 1973 primer on women's health, Our Bodies, Ourselves. A typical example is a monologue about a woman attending a self-help "vagina workshop." The monologue is delivered by Shay in an erudite tone that becomes increasingly enthusiastic.

Many speeches are comic, including one that begins, "My vagina's angry." Proclaimed with grandstanding outrage by Leo, this harangue lambastes everything from thong underwear to gynecological exams.

Interspersed throughout the evening are various silly Q-and-As along the lines of the infamous Barbara Walters "If-you-were-a-tree" query. In this case, that translates to: "If your vagina could talk, what would it say?" or, if it got dressed, "what would it wear?"

On the serious side, there are somber factual snippets about violence against women. One of these is followed by the show's bleakest monologue, which is based on the story of a Bosnian rape victim. Delivered softly and tearfully by Carle, this account is so horrific it reduced the vocal Mechanic crowd to stunned silence.

Oddly enough, there's no mention of menstruation, although the closing monologue is about birth. More troublesome is the positive spin given to a teen-age girl's willing seduction by a 24-year-old woman. Ensler has changed the girl's age from 13 in the published script to 16, the age of consent in many states. But the notion of an adult seducing a minor still seems questionable cause for celebration.

Ensler started out performing The Vagina Monologues as a solo show, bringing an early version to Center Stage's former Off Center series in 1998. The touring production, like its long-running off-Broadway counterpart, relies on a cast of three.

Carle and Shay, who travel with the show, are joined in each city by an actress with a connection to the town. (Leo portrayed Sgt. Kay Howard in the former Baltimore-based NBC series, Homicide: Life on the Street, and starred in Center Stage's 1998 production of Paula Vogel's How I Learn to Drive.)

Though the actresses have scripts, their mastery of the material rarely requires reading from the page. Under Abby Epstein's direction, all three share a warm rapport, encouraging each other and joking among themselves. (When Leo missed a cue, she gained audience laughter and approval for her quick recovery: "It's my first time!").

The introductory remarks explain that most of the women Ensler interviewed initially were shy when it came to talking about their vaginas. "But once they got going, you couldn't stop them." This show not only has kept the conversation going, it's taken it to a worldwide audience.

At the Mechanic, the easy, festive nature of the proceedings extends over the footlights, and turns this unconventional play into an event that is part rally, part massive group therapy, part sociology study and part performance art. Whether the result strikes a chord or a nerve, one thing's for sure: It's definitely not for the squeamish.

Monologues

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. tonight, tomorrow; 5 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets:$12.50-$45 (part of the proceeds benefit the House of Ruth)

Call: 410-752-1200

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