Eve Ensler is many things: successful playwright (The Vagina Monologues), radical feminist, actress, outspoken crusader to stop violence toward women — her worldwide organization V-Day, started in 1998, has funded community safe houses and raised awareness from Kenya to Iraq — and, most recently, cancer survivor. Most of all, though, she is a storyteller, and The Good Body, adapted from her nonfiction book and given a spirited production from Pandora Theatre, is full of smart, touching and comic stories of how women look at their bodies and what they'll do to change what they see.
This might be the ultimate "chick play," but guys are heartily welcome in her warm, embracing world, conjured with bubbly aplomb. Male gym rats with their 'roid rage know all about body consciousness, but whether they're as willing to discuss their flaws as openly as the women in this Borscht Belt consciousness-raiser is something else again. Whatever sex you are — sorry — wherever you fall on the gender scale, you'll find Ensler's observations wise and laugh-out-loud funny.
There were patches of humor in Ensler's best work, the aforementioned Monologues, her eye-opening tour of the female netherworld. But she was on the warpath and mostly stayed earnest; humor was far below her radar. Body has passages that are like the best comedy club routine, with payoffs and punch lines any comic would be proud to have in her repertoire. Also, this being Ensler, there are passages of sudden heartbreak, dramatic revelations that kick you in the gut, used not to titillate but to show just how serious the consequences can be when you let your body get the best of you.
Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 713-304-4656.
Through November 20. $15.
"Eve" (a nicely rumpled, perplexed Nicole Lawson Chelly) introduces herself and the theme "I want to be good." But that soon morphs into the larger question, "How can I be good when I hate my body?" And then she zeros in: "I hate my stomach." The play is off and running. Soon, two other "Women" (Melissa Mumper and Abby Esparza) join Eve on her mission for perfection as she travels the globe, only to discover that nobody's happy inside their bodies. There's always one part that needs attention, fixing, eliminating.
If they're not already gym-obsessed, they've been lobotomized by pernicious Cosmo magazine and its unobtainable perfection of raisin-a-day blond cover girls. Cosmo's doyenne, Helen Gurley Brown, gets a drubbing for the message her mag sends to women everywhere, but even this powerful, feared editor has feet of clay and whines about being able to help everybody but herself. Then she offers Eve some edamame. "How do people do this?" Eve wonders. "Why do people do this?" Dieting and bread, in particular, get ripped in a scathing monologue in which Eve eschews the carbs but then dines on pretzels, bread's freeze-dried version. Then we're whisked to a fat camp, where Esparza plays a sassy, unrepentant inmate with a joyous riff on "plus sizes" that are kept in the back of the store, like porn.
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Other cultures get their due, and Mumper (who shines throughout) plays an irrepressible Puerto Rican woman who receives ironic cosmic revenge when her promiscuous mother, with her flawless ass, who has forever put down her daughter for her ample butt spread, dies from AIDS. The tale goes from goofy to tragic in a sentence.
Then we're off to Rio for a vignette on lipo and the good wife (Esparza) whose plastic surgeon husband keeps finding another place on her body to change — maybe soya breast implants (so soft and squeezable) or another round of Botox. "I'm not the person I used to be," she says with innocent candor, then wonders what will happen to her husband's ardor when there's nothing more of her to fix. To keep him busy, she secretly devours ice cream every day.
If labial laser rejuvenation can ever be said to be uplifting, it would have to be in the story of Carol (Mumper) finding new life in her old husband when a drastic nip and tuck brings new meaning to "vulva esteem." Carol revives her flaccid hubby and he's happy; but she still hopes he'll "take some time for me." We're plopped squarely into Vagina territory, but Mumper tells her tale with such freshness and intimacy, we're thoroughly enchanted. There's also a defiant little scene set in Afghanistan in which Eve joins Muslim women in the back room of a restaurant as they hide behind curtains to eat vanilla ice cream. They hide from the Taliban, patrolling only feet away, while they savor forbidden pleasure.
The feminist message Ensler proposes in The Good Body flies straight across gender lines: Be yourself. If you're consumed with your flaws and obsessed with physical perfection, there's no way you can be of any help to anyone else. You can't change the world if you can't move your face. It's not the most original theme, but Ensler's stories are mighty persuasive when they're reflected through Pandora Theatre's faceted prism of actors.