Somehow, despite my years of writing about theater, I had never seen Eve Ensler’s famous play about women, sexuality, and violence against both of them. So when I heard about the Co-Op Theatre East’s production and was told, “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before,” I had no idea what to expect. It was unlike anything I had experienced before – in many fantastic ways.
Featured in Co-Op Theatre East’s “Living Room Series,” which is devoted to bringing theater to nontraditional spaces, The Vagina Monologues was performed in an apartment building in Harlem. Part of the 2013 V-Day Campaign to End Violence Against Women, it began with the audience members standing outside the building until the performers came out to join them. We heard some of the monologues outside, some standing in the lobby of the building, and some inside someone’s apartment, sitting on her couch or standing in the bedroom or bathroom. This intimate environment and close proximity to the performers highlighted and enhanced the confessional and intimate atmosphere of The Vagina Monologues, causing the already powerful piece to pack even more of a punch – a punch that left me breathless.
Directed by Ashley Marinaccio, who also performed in the ensemble, the cast of The Vagina Monologues was exceptionally unique and accessible. Each of the women were remarkably powerful and effective in their performances, enhancing the frightening, the angry, the intimate or the heartbreaking truth behind women opening up about a subject, and using a word, that is so often considered forbidden to talk about. To hear women speak frankly – and proudly – about a topic so often met with a sense of shock and disgust is nothing short of delightful and the impassioned performances by this gifted cast were nothing short of a revelation. When Dominique Fishback proudly – and loudly – proclaimed, “My vagina is angry!” and went on to rail about the physically as well as emotionally uncomfortable atmosphere of gynecologists’ offices, everyone chuckled at the first outburst but quickly quieted, listening with rapt attention to the gifted actor’s statements, despite her having preceded them with the word “angry.”
Fishback, who is a compelling performer, also gave a speech about the word “cunt” later in the evening. Hearing the word used as just that – a word, and not a disparaging, derogatory insult – was fascinating. Anna Savant’s delivery of a monologue about a vagina workshop, and finding a way to give herself pleasure, was also particularly moving; Savant’s performance as a woman who had distanced herself from her body, and her fear at discovering how her body felt to her, was deeply moving and inspired a great deal of sympathy, as well as serving as a powerful reminder of how many women suffer gynecological pain that they do not understand or know how to treat – or that there is even a way to treat this kind of pain.
Kate Garfield joined Savant in a scene about a woman who suffered brutal sexual abuse at the hands of soldiers. Performed in the bathroom, with Garfield applying makeup in the mirror and Savant standing, clothed, in a running shower, this scene was so powerful that a complete stranger handed me some tissues mid-way through it. The two women gave the topic the respect it deserved without downplaying the horrors of the words they were saying. Garfield also delivered another sobering monologue about a woman who suffered sexual shame early in life and never revisited the idea of her sexuality until she had most of her reproductive organs removed due to cancer. Another sobering performance came from Patrick Paglen, who played a transgender woman whose lover was beaten to death. Lying in a relaxed, reclining position on a bed, in one of the apartment’s bedrooms, Pagan appeared completely at ease, even while speaking of such a painful subject.
Marinaccio gave one of the more a light-hearted performance as a dominatrix, discussing the different types of female orgasms (which were demonstrated from another room, much to the audience’s amusement). And Brenda Crawley’s performance of a speech about hair and the standards of physical beauty that women are held to, was such a relief to hear. Imagine how different the world would be if we could all speak so frankly about these topics!
The Vagina Monologues is based on Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Interviews,” which the writer conducted with women from around the world about sex, relationships and violence against women. While each monologue touched upon darker themes in women’s sexuality, one of my favorites took place when the entire ensemble stood in the living room, stating matter-of-factly that their short skirts were not invitations to verbal or physical assault. With a heightened awareness of the culture of victim blaming in modern-day society, I especially appreciated this scene.
I appreciated a great deal about The Vagina Monologues, and some of this appreciation was inspired in part to attending the show with a heterosexual man, who, after seeing it asked, “Is that really…?” about several of the speeches. Such an intimate and honest production that brings issues of shame in sexuality as well as abuse and objectification of women – a theme that is all too relevant in today’s culture – into someone’s home – her living room, bedroom and even her bathtub – was educating, enraging and inspiring.