In the Body of the World: To Hell and Back with Eve Ensler at the A.R.T. through Sunday May 29

I was interviewing Eve Ensler late in 2014 about her then-upcoming dramedy “O.P.C.” (for Obsessive Political Correctness). She was in a pretty serious mood and near the end of our talk I asked what she did for fun. You know, when she turned off her brain what would she enjoy doing?

“I never turn off my brain,” she replied.

You don’t, never?, I said.

“It’s very hard,” she said.  “I think when you’re an activist, and when you’re involved in a movement like I have been for the last 20 years, you’re in it. The movement’s always with me and I’m ok with that.”

So, there was this bit of trepidation, approaching Ensler’s one-woman play “In the Body of the World,” premiering at the American Repertory Theatre’s Loeb Drama Center (up through Sunday May 29th.) It’s an adaptation of her 2013 memoir and her second work with Tony-winner/ART artistic director Diane Paulus. We know Ensler can be witty and wise but also verbose and for all her worldly feminist activism, a wee bit self-absorbed, too. So there was this fear of … monologue.

It’s not like Ensler hasn’t been in monologue land before, as she is best-known for “The Vagina Monolgues.” Well, this is not that (a strict, person-standing-at-the-mic monologue) and in fact is very dramatic and, in some ways a pretty fast-moving romp – if I can call a run through  grim material a romp – through her personal history with cancer, expanded out, into her work with the abused women of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. (Ensler established the “City of Joy,” a leadership community for abused women and the play sometimes goes there, paralleling Ensler’s struggles with her own health, mental and physical, and the severe trauma these women had experienced. Are they equivalent? Eh, maybe not but these things overlapped in Ensler’s life and this is nothing if not a true-to-life take on devastation, recovery and, yes, hope. (The hope comes at the end; I won’t spoil the setup or scene, except to say that the stage opens up into something lush and gorgeous, and very A.R.T. like.)

It all starts with the cancer, Stage IV, and Ensler notes the bitter, black comic irony of the cancer striking her in the part of her body she’s best-known for writing about.

Cancer, of course, is no fun at all but it is, in Ensler’s hands (being it was in her body) rife for black-humored jabs, scattered among the agonies and indignities of the diagnosis, disease and treatment. When she’s getting chemo with other cancer patients, she says they’re in the “Infusion Suite.”

What gives this 90-minute show real zest is the interaction of Myung Hee Cho’s set, Finn Ross’ vivid projections on a backing scrim and Jen Schriever’s lighting design. With a minimum of fuss, the stage shifted shape from Ensler’s New York loft to the hospital to a hotel room and more. Paulus keeps Ensler in motion, whether she’s scurrying about the stage, excoriating or praising her doctors, ranting, raving or simply contemplating the beauty of a tree from her bed.

What gives the play both its sass and gravitas is Ensler’s willingness to examine her own not-exactly-tidy-past – sexual abuse, drugs, booze, promiscuity, etc. – and the courage she showed in a) fighting this awful disease and b) turning it into material. Perhaps, she had no choice in the latter matter, having survived the former. She’s a playwright; fate handed her a subject and she’s used it. Ensler reveals herself, both mentally and physically, in ways that are, in places, quite shocking. No holds barred – her relationships with her once cold, gorgeous, but now frail and dying mother and a sister she resented early in life, who came to her side during the cancer onslaught. And while, as I said Ensler leavens the show with barbed wit, there’s a description of the sexual abuse in Africa that is stomach-turning in its raw brutality. It’s meant to be, of course.

After that, the play takes a final and to me, a radical and unexpected shift. I’ll not go further describing that so as to (hopefully) leave it as mind-spinning for you as it was for me.

Tickets start at $25. Thursday, sold out. Tickets available Friday-Sunday

64 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-547-8300 www.americanrepertorytheater.org

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