Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," at the Canon Theatre, is not just a play anymore. It's a social movement.
The Obie Award-winning show has toured widely since it burst onto the New York theater scene in 1996. In its Canon run, "Monologues" features the high-voltage team of Julie Kavner, Julianna Margulies and Rosie Perez, all of whom have performed as part of the piece's continually rotating celebrity cast off-Broadway.
In 1998, "Monologues" inspired Ensler and other organizers to proclaim "V-Day"--specifically set aside to focus on the issue of violence against women. Observed every Valentine's Day, V-Day has become both an effective fund-raising tool and a feminist flash point. During the past three years, the forces behind V-Day have raised more than $3 million for anti-violence organizations.
In today's explicit media, saturated with hyper-violent images and viciously misogynistic references that would have been unthinkable even five years ago, it's hard to argue with such a noble and necessary cause.
It's also hard to review a social movement. To separate the play from the sweeping sociopolitical context surrounding it is a daunting task.
Impossible, in fact. But that is largely the point. As dramatic literature, "Monologues" is roughhewn, ranging from the soaringly poetic to the uncomfortably pornographic. As a neo-feminist celebration, however, it is an occasion for rejoicing.
A survivor of incest and constant physical abuse in her childhood, Ensler based her piece on more than 200 interviews with women from many walks of life. The women were asked to discuss their vaginas in specific and exhaustive detail. Some monologues are amalgams of several interviews based on the same subject; others are undiluted reminiscences from a single woman about a past sexual triumph--or trauma.
The surprisingly candid result is often hilarious, sometimes harrowing. And, let's face it, blatantly monomaniacal. At a few particularly graphic intervals, Ensler crosses the line into moaning, panting salaciousness--that same reductive view of female sexuality her show decries.
It's an unsettling sensation but, one suspects, a conscious breach on Ensler's part, a relentless objectification of the female anatomy meant to make a point about society's relentless objectification of the female anatomy. In fact, the feelings "Monologues" engender are as complicated as the subject of female sexuality itself. At times, one feels like yelling, "Enough, already!" But sometimes one suppresses the inclination to leap up and shout, archaically, "Right on, feminist sister!"
Originally a one-woman show starring Ensler, "Monologues" has become a favorite forum for female celebrities to display their stage skills and honor their feminist leanings.
Under the direction of stage veteran Joe Mantello, another Obie winner, the present Los Angeles cast burns up the boards. "Monologues" veterans Margulies, Perez and Kavner know their stuff. But "Monologues" is essentially readers' theater, a glorified recital during which the actresses remain seated, scripts in hand. And, on opening night, the performers had a few moments of eye-darting jitters as they referred to their texts.
More often, however, the action is seamless, and the actresses shine. Comically twitchy Perez elicits roars as she recounts one woman's journey toward self-acceptance. Detailing an elderly woman's early sexual humiliation, the husky-voiced Kavner moves the audience to tears. And the elegant Margulies ventures intrepidly into the outrageous, in the most definitive portrayal of the female orgasm since "Harry Met Sally." The cast changes every few weeks, so catch this winning combination if you can.
"The Vagina Monologues," Canon Theatre, 205 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Indefinitely. $25-$49.50. (310) 859-2830. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.