When a woman smiles... | Byron Woods | Indy Week
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When a woman smiles... 

Eve Ensler's new work bares more soul than body

"Never trust a man who can't stop grinning," my Aunt Jetty said. But does the same rubric apply to women too? For the grins are similar--indeed, they no doubt are related--on the faces of two characters in different productions in the region this week.

The smile on Diane Ciesla's face in the opening moments of Playmakers' String of Pearls radiates the nearly incandescent anger that her crisp, 74-year-old character still vividly recalls, 35 years after learning of the sudden death of her husband. "I went home from the hospital with my little bag of Ethan," she says, recounting how she received, posthumously, the fateful title object from her husband. If anything, the smile gets just a little fiercer as she says of the pearls, "I wore them to sleep that night and the next. I slept that way for five years."

Equally memorable but significantly more disturbing is the façade of The Botox Woman, one of a constellation of characters that we meet during Eve Ensler's new one-woman show, The Good Body. The Botox Woman's entire face has been frozen for the ages by cosmetic injections of a nerve toxin. The fixed rictus recalls that of the famous Batman nemesis, The Joker; a sealed, permanent mask through which no real identity or emotion can be seen. Alexandre Dumas, call your office. Particularly since the woman who cannot stop grinning says, "It's botulinum. It's in our bodies. A single gram could kill millions. My face could take out most of Manhattan. It gives new meaning to the notion of homeland security. Doesn't it?

"Like Condi Rice, I am smiling at you," she continues. "Not one inch of this rage leaks through. Here's the scary news--there are millions of us. We serve your tea. We hand out peanuts on your planes. We shred your documents.... It's easier now to slip through. They can't check this bag at customs. The doctor shoots me up every couple weeks. My face is numb, but I'm insane in here.... It's the post-menses, not-sorry-anymore, not-many-years left, smiling-at-you army. We are lethal. We are growing in numbers.... Watch your back. One bite. Beware."

V-Day, Eve Ensler's international effort against violence against women, has spread across the globe. The movement has just opened their first safe house in Kenya, and V-Day Karama (an Arabic word meaning "dignity") has just opened an office in Cairo to direct activities for the women of the Middle East and North Africa.

After eight years, the Vagina Monologues phenomenon has not yet peaked. Around 2,300 productions ran in over 1,000 cities this year, with more productions currently scheduled for next year's effort than had been in place this time last year. Thus far, V-Day observances have raised $30 million for violence against women. "We're entrenched," Ensler says on the phone from Miami, where she performs The Good Body before her dates here next week at Progress Energy Center. "People get it; we're making an impact."

But the work that remains is daunting. "The situation is insane," Ensler admits. "The United Nations says that, across the globe, one out of every three women will be affected by violence in their lifetime. There is an insane amount of violence directed toward women on this planet. But I think at least there's a consciousness now that didn't used to be there."

If Ensler's new work picks up where the Monologues left off, it is on some levels a more vulnerable, more personal document. Hard to believe? Then consider this: During the early moments of the show, Ensler doesn't bare any of the various sexual organs she's written and spoken of in recent years--she shows the audience her post-age-40 tummy instead. Ensler notes, "What I can't believe is that someone like me, a radical feminist for nearly 30 years, could spend this much time thinking about my stomach. It has become my tormentor, my distractor ... my most serious committed relationship."

Call it a gutsy move, for more reasons than one. An opening frame like this leaves Ensler wide open to charges of, well, navel-gazing and narcissism.

But over the course of a brisk evening, the playwright assembles an international choir of voices both famous and obscure. An 80-year-old--and 90-pound--Helen Gurley Brown still exhausts herself in pursuit of a beauty never recognized while she was a child. Bernice, a precocious, African-American "fat camp" feminist simultaneously envies and rails against "skinny bitches." Actor Isabella Rossellini discloses how a cosmetics company tried to silence her. A rich Long Islander relates how she was genitally disfigured at a California "laser rejuvenation center." Each bears witness to the ways in which women have been taught to embrace their own eclipse, by different folkways, religions--and by corporate capitalism.

"What does it do," she asks me during our interview, "but tell us 'Be good' while simultaneously telling us it's impossible, that we're not enough? I have picked up on such a wave of loneliness, of inadequacy out there while touring this show. We're told that if we spend enough money, if we buy enough things we can fill the gaps, we can be whole."

"As a result," Ensler says, "we've become dangerously distracted, preoccupied with spending, with acquisitions, with fixing our bodies--which weren't broken to start with--while everybody else is running the world."

How she resolves this headlong dash gives the evening its final lift, in a symbolic--and literal--act of communion whose impact must be seen to be believed. Strongly recommended.

Meanwhile, our endorsement of String of Pearls must remain considerably more qualified. Guest director Trezana Beverley's work last season on Playmakers' Yellowman was undeniably brilliant, a milestone in the theater of this region. But in this endeavor, she seems at first nearly as baffled as we are by Michele Lowe's uneven script, a series of disparate monologues and duets that didn't begin to fundamentally cohere into a whole until after the start of act two on opening night.

Lowe's text centers on how a single string of pearls improbably passes--with unbelievable dispatch--through a series of hands and lives before unerringly returning just in time for the above-named widow's granddaughter to wear during her wedding. Though the playwright at least tries to look like she's looking in on upper and lower classes, she seems to be craning her neck a lot further in some cases than others.

The cast, including the memorable Ms. Ciesla mentioned above, our own Kathryn Hunter Williams and an ever-game Susan Barrett, attempts to arrange the uncooked pasta of act one into a recognizable and palatable form. But their work is made no easier on this outing by Ms. Beverley's trademark choreography, which repeatedly sees fit to roll the women on stage in the most ungainly way possible: over the cryptic hump at the back of Robin Vest's pearlescent, symbolic--but not entirely functional--set. Of course they're being washed onstage, but where Beverley's stylized movements reinforce character and metaworld in other parts, in moments as obvious as this it disrupts them instead.

We sense the work doesn't find its stride until a final arc in which an obese lesbian gravedigger finds an improbable romantic partner and facilitates the return of the titled object. Until then, Lowe's "circle" remains a series of hypothetical, basically disconnected arcs that reinforce the distance between these characters rather than unite them. As a necklace, some elements are far more polished than others, but the whole remains far too brittle to be worn.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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