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‘In the Body of the World’ review: Eve Ensler’s gritty, hopeful cancer drama

Eve Ensler performs her memoir

Eve Ensler performs her memoir "In the Body of the World" at MTC at City Center. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “In the Body of the World”

WHERE Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St.

INFO $90; 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org

BOTTOM LINE A gritty but uplifting look at Eve Ensler’s experience with a life-threatening illness.

The irony is obvious and painful.

A year into treatment for stage 3/4 uterine cancer, Eve Ensler is told that should the disease recur, it would likely be in the vagina. Radiation is suggested. “Do you know who I am?” the furious patient wails at the unseen doctor.

Oh, we do, Ms. Ensler, we all do. The Tony-winning activist, best known for her play “The Vagina Monologues,” has fought for years and raised millions of dollars on behalf of sexually abused women the world over.

Those women are very much present in “In the Body of the World,” the powerful and ultimately uplifting stage version of Ensler’s memoir that just opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club. At the play’s start, Ensler is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo raising funds to build City of Joy, a refuge for the thousands of women who have been brutalized in the war-torn nation.

The devastating diagnosis forces Ensler to focus, reluctantly and uncomfortably, on her own body, and the ordeal she relates is one all too familiar to any cancer patient. Director Diane Paulus allows a little self-indulgence to creep in, but who could blame her? Ensler does not falter, sparing none of the gritty, gruesome details, even as she tries to inject some humor into her own personal horror story. The Mayo Clinic’s hometown of Rochester, Minnesota, she dubs “Cancer Town,” where even “the waitresses are grief counselors.”

Though very much alone on Myung Hee Cho’s spare but striking set, Ensler makes sure we feel, at times intensely, the presence of so many others, among them the kind, caring doctor at Mayo; the brute who never looks at her while performing an excruciating procedure, and her estranged sister who comes to care for her. Finn Ross’ artistic projections illuminate what’s going on in her head — the poisons rushing through her veins during chemo; the infection that takes over on the same day as the Gulf oil spill; the tree, “my tree,” outside her window at Beth Israel that became “my reason to live.”

Throughout all of this, amazingly, Ensler never loses touch with what was happening in the Congo and at play’s end, she is back there. It is the opening of City of Joy, and several of the medical practitioners who cared for her have come to celebrate, and to help. The curtains part to reveal a glorious jungle garden, and Ensler invites the audience to come up and explore it. She has left the stage, but her message of hope has not.

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