The Good Body by Eve Ensler. Directed by Peter Askin. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Original music and sound design by Vand Van Tieghem. Video design by Wendall K. Harrington. Co-sound design by Jill BC Du Boff.
Put aside your thoughts and fears about terrorists or weapons of mass destruction. The most dangerous and controversial thing Eve Ensler tackles in her new one-woman show - The Good Body, which just opened at the Booth - is a dish of vanilla ice cream.
Okay, so perhaps ice cream on its own isn't one of the most hazardous substances imaginable, at least not in this country. But considered contraband in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, ice cream could mean vicious punishment - if not death - for women found with it. When Ensler was taken briefly into the secret meeting place of a group of ice cream-coveting women, the classic American dessert suddenly represented something delightfully unexpected: freedom.
But as surprising as this anecdote is, it's the sole revelatory moment in an evening devoted to exploring a different kind of freedom: from one's negative body image. After coming to terms with a different part of herself after over half a decade with The Vagina Monologues, Ensler's now decided to aim higher: at her stomach. "My tormenter," she calls it, only half joking, "my most serious committed relationship."
That might well be, and relationships onstage are certainly necessary for vital, exciting theatre. But this one doesn't pack much of a punch - instead of creatively exploring the myth of the perfect body, and what women will do to achieve it, she instead covers all the expected ground. The stories Ensler relates, which are taken from her own life as well as the lives of women she met all over the world as a result of The Vagina Monologues, deal with subjects like diets, exercise, fat camps, liposuction, breast reduction, and so on. Finally, on a trip to Africa, she meets a clear-headed woman who implores her to love and cherish the body she's in, regardless of what it looks like.
Moving as this might be, it's a predictable climax to a predictable - if well-intentioned - evening. Trying to convince women, and by extension men, to worry less about what parts of their body don't look exactly right (by whatever standard) is a worthy goal. And the stories Ensler presents from women from all walks of life - numerous American women, an Ipanema model, a Puerto Rican, an Italian, an Indian, and even screen beauty Isabella Rossellini make appearances - are generally interesting as far as they're taken.
But the languidly emotional speeches from these women are all delivered by a stilted, stuffy Ensler to varying degrees of success. Ensler's performance is the primary contributor to the production's rough-around-the-edges feeling, which makes The Good Body play less like a finished work than a public workshop in which the author/performer is still trying to shape the show. Ensler gets little help from director Peter Askin, who's primarily devoted to supporting and amplifying Ensler's personality in a house too large for her and the intimate evening she wants to present.
They both have the help of some impressive video sequences from Wendall K. Harrington, a photography-studio set from Robert Brill, and, well, photography-studio lighting from Kevin Adams. But it's seldom enough to elevate the piece: Ensler connects with the audience only once, when she pulls away part of the black outfit that costume designer Susan Hilferty has provided and bares her stomach to the audience. This moment, which received the loudest and longest ovation of the evening at the performance I attended, tells more about who Ensler is now and where she's been than most of the rest of the 90-minute show; it's so effective as to render the balance of the show, which demonstrates how she as reached this point, superfluous.
At least, that is, until the final scene, when the multiple freedoms imparted by that forbidden dish of ice cream provide a clarity of perspective otherwise missing from The Good Body. What had seemed like a bland, shallow exercise now seems a vital and important contribution to our sense of self and the freedoms - national and personal - we can all too easily take for granted.