The Hole Shebang
The will-call line for The Vagina Monologues snaked all the way across the lobby of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, and I was the only man in it. That is, until another fellow -- a local publisher of some renown, at least in publishing circles -- approached the line; he wanted to buy tickets for something but wasn't sure where to go. When he asked a pair of women standing behind me what show they were in line for, one of them giggled. The other stared at her shoes. He asked the woman behind them, who just pointed at the gaping doors of the theater. All of these people had vaginas, but none of them could bring themselves to say the word aloud.
Things were different inside. There, a trio of actresses -- Starla Benford, Sherri Parker Lee and, on this night, Margot Kidder, who will be replaced in the show's second week by Tank Girl star Lori Petty -- held forth, long and loud, on that particular part of their anatomy for nearly two hours. I stopped counting after the first hundred times someone spoke the word "vagina."
Despite its titillating title and sex-forward stories, this isn't a play about genitalia. Inspired by interviews with more than 200 women, Eve Ensler's collection of first-person vignettes is rooted in women's sexuality, but tells a wider tale of female survival. Ensler spins a performance artist's fondness for naughty language into some compelling reasons why "dirty words" are anything but. There's the stunning and sometimes hilarious list, chanted by all three actresses, of silly euphemisms for vagina (including coochie, pookie, powderbox, cooter, toady, and, somehow, Gladys Segalman). There's the celebratory speech that reclaims the c-word (I confess, I cannot write -- or utter -- that particular vulgarism), and a moving, explicit account of women who were raped during Bosnia's civil war that received a deafening ovation from the Scottsdale crowd.
The response has been largely the same since The Vagina Monologues debuted off-Broadway in 1996. Originally performed by Ensler, the show won an Obie and built a following among A-list actresses on hiatus from their regular gigs, who could step into the show with little rehearsal time, since its monologues are read from cards and not blocked or acted in the traditional sense. The show's success has spawned a nationwide "V-Day" campaign, part of an anti-violence movement that has raised more than $4 million toward Ensler's cause. This year, The Vagina Monologues played to an audience of 18,000 at Madison Square Garden, where it was performed by Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Ricki Lake, Marisa Tomei, Brooke Shields and Shirley Knight, among others. An HBO documentary about the show is scheduled to air this fall.
On paper, The Vagina Monologues reads like a tacky transcript of a post-feminist encounter group, an ERA-era postcard to empowerment. But to see it performed is to understand what Ensler means when she talks -- as she does, endlessly, in print interviews -- about women empowering their vaginas, about how women are their vaginas. In story after story, we meet women who are discovering and celebrating something that brings not only pleasure but life; women who'd been told to ignore this powerful part of themselves, usually by men.
Ensler's stirring solo performance of the 17 monologues, originally directed by Joe Mantello, has been traded up for a star-studded turnstile in the show's touring version. Ironically, it's the lesser-known performers in the Scottsdale Center production who steal all the thunder. Kidder's casual approach to the material appears careless, and her ad-libs ("Can I get one of the twats backstage to bring me some hot tea?" and "In Montana, we used to call a vagina 'Grandma's Old-Fashioned Crack Pie!'") were met with stony silence by an audience who spent most of the rest of the evening howling with glee.
Benford's fiery reading of a lesbian dominatrix who demonstrates different types of orgasms quickly put the show back on track, where it stayed, shifting gears between high comedy ("Why on earth can't gynecologists warm up that damn speculum?") and more solemn stuff (a woman who didn't like her vagina and "preferred to imagine I had furniture down there."). Parker Lee exudes a chummy talk-show-host camaraderie with the audience, shrugging and smirking at them between lines; her recitals offer the widest range and the most refined performances of the lot.
The evening concludes with a moving piece about childbirth that brings together the show's best elements: poetry and polemic, performance art and comedy. Eventually, Ensler believes, this combination will bring about change and help eradicate violence against women. In the meantime, The Vagina Monologues is an enlightened entertainment that reminds us that people, regardless of their gender, are more than the sum of their parts.
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