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Gender Roles and Power Plays in the Ag

Eve Ensler's candid exploration of sexuality comes to Harvard


"Vagina. There I've said it. I am saying it to celebrate my womanhood because what you don't say becomes a secret which shame, guilt and embarrassment surround." So opens Eve Ensler's dynamic and candid play The Vagina Monologues, now showing at the Agassiz Theater. In its original form, Ensler's singular work was made to lead the audience towards a celebration of the "sustenance, humor and creativity" that encompass the woman's discovery of self. Indeed, her avowed purpose in writing the piece was to communicate the abuse of the vagina to the general public and to increase women's awareness of their sexual and social roles. To achieve this goal, Ensler deftly exploits the shame and uncomfortable feelings which encircle this delicate and somewhat socially offensive and taboo subject. Basing her work on a collection of interviews with women of different races, creeds, ages and backgrounds, she tackles such questions as "If your vagina could talk, what would it say?" in addition to "Then what would it wear?"

While Ensler's dialogue is amusing, touching, offensive and poignant by turns, her play as a whole lacks cohesion. Certain entire scenes are, if anything, confusing and unprofessional. Add to this the fact that giggles occasionally escape from the mouths of the actors on stage in the current production and you have an unprofessional--and at times even demeaning--interpretation of what potentially could have been a moving discourse about women and the discovery and preservation of self.

More distressing, however, is the fact that the current production at Harvard seems to wander in its focus. More often than not, the play itself centers on the sexual differences between men and women. The program notes even include a section devoted to why the X chromosome is thousands of times more useful, bigger, and better than the Y chromosome: "Gentlemen, I'm afraid it's true, size does make a difference". If Ensler's goal was to simply state that women are better than men are, these statements might have been relevant, but this seems contrary to Ensler's stated intent and to portions of the text itself.

According to Ensler, The Vagina Monologues is meant to inform the world about the sexual injustices forced upon women by society. Her aim was not so much to declare a feminist boycott against men as to educate women about the beauty of their own femininity. Unfortunately, the current production often loses sight of this perspective throughout the performance. The production even seems to perpetuate the hatred of men at times, leaving behind the opened-minded ideas of discovery, tolerance, and understanding.

The producton is more true to Ensler's text when it displays and examines the vagina in all its facets. From abuse, mutilation and rape to pleasure, birth and homosexual domination, The Vagina Monologues explores the life-changing events that one's vagina must endure. But even here, the current production seems to diverge from Ensler's intentions. While this Valentine's Day performance at Harvard was part of a collective campaign including 300 other colleges and universities nationwide to end sexual violence against women, this production seems to focus heavily on the "sexual" end of the spectrum, overlooking much of the "violence" aspect. Accompanying groans and wails from members of an eclectic audience only augmented the sexual portion of the production, forcing the audience and cast in general to abandon other aspects of Ensler's work and diminishing the play's celebration of woman and their sexuality.

But despite these ideological problems, the play does resound in its humorous anecdotes and astounding artistic talent. The movement, dancing, rhythm and sheer creativity of the production make it an enjoyable performance to watch regardless of your political scruples. Kudos are due to the direction of Billie Jo Jay '91 and Olivier Besson whose artistic guidance and inspiration are evident throughout the play. Individual monologues glow with talent, especially those of Tara Moon and Sophia Chang '01 whose enthusiasm and energy make the "vagina experience" all the more real. The artistic strength of the production certainly make it worth seeing, especially since proceeds go to support women's issues. But keep in mind that the production tends to celebrate only three things: sex, women, and vaginas--all very explicitly. But then again, what else would you expect?

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