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The Vagina Is So Yesterday -- Ensler Says Now It's All About Her Stomach

Originally published in:
San Francisco Chronicle

By Annie Nakao, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wherever Eve Ensler goes, ferment ensues. Who else could provoke bejeweled Manhattan socialites to greet each other with a rousing "C -- !" -- followed by hugs and giggles? Or inspire Cairo housewives to bake "vagina cookies"? Or cause headlines to blare: "Tokyo braces for 'Vagina
Monologues.' "

Five years after she blasted the word "vagina" out of whispered usage and posted it up in big, glittering lights off-Broadway, the charismatic playwright's blitzkrieg movement to stop violence against women has gone global.

"The Vagina Monologues," Ensler's hilariously bawdy take on women's most private part, has been performed in more than 30 countries and translated into 28 languages. More than 2,300 Ensler-endorsed "V-Day" celebrations (for victory, valentine and vagina) were held all over the world on Feb. 14. In the past seven years, "V-Day" events have raised more than $25 million to fight violence against women.

Documentaries, book projects and an army of celebrity admirers trail after her like the wake of an ocean liner bearing down on yet another port. None of it seems to slow down Ensler, 51, who has by turns aided Afghan women activists during the Taliban regime, founded safe houses for battered American Indian women in South Dakota, conducted prison workshops for female inmates and, more recently, organized anti-war protests. This once-obscure New York playwright has become an iconic feminist figure with geopolitical clout.

But last week, Ensler looked surprisingly petite, even vulnerable as she nestled deep into an imposing red couch in the baroque lobby of the Hotel Monaco, just a stone's throw from the Geary Theater, where her new play, "The Good Body," has its world premiere tonight. Not that she's missing her stage persona: the jet-black precision Louise Brooks bob, pale skin and scarlet lips. Maybe it's the pale, bare legs and red toenail polish -- she's wearing a short dress and casual black slippers -- that make her seem girlish.

"If people come to the theater and actually experience loving their body for just 10 minutes, I'll be very happy," she says of her new work. The body is an essential lens through which Ensler sees the world. But she's moved on from the vagina material to her "not-so-flat, post-40s stomach."

"I thought if I said it enough, vagina, vagina, vagina, it was like magic -- I felt good about it, and I did," she said. "That's when I began a new obsession. How many hours a day do I think about my stomach, dressing it, covering it, fantasizing about how it's supposed to look?"

Unlike "The Vagina Monologues," this play is largely autobiographical, sketching a childhood spent as an anomaly to her own mother:

"She was blonde and glowed

In her pack of golden puppies I was dark and hairy

Eew! How did this one get into my litter.

My mother would do anything, everything to clean me up,

Shut me up, make me good, make me right.

"The play looks at what it's meant for women to be 'good' and what it could mean for women to be 'great,' " she says.

And what is good?

"Thin, flat, small, blond," she said. "Blond is a piece of being good."

And great?

"An original who follows her own voice and is probably loud and ambiguous and complicated and a mystery," Ensler said. "Women have a real decision to make, whether to be good or great."

The play reveals her own past loathings about her body: "I watch ab- roller infomercials until 4 a.m. as I eat an entire bag, a family-size bag, of peanut M&Ms." Ensler, who grew up middle-class in Scarsdale, N.Y., was abused physically and sexually by her father and spent most of her young adulthood as a suicidal alcoholic.

But "The Good Body" is also full of grimly humorous characterizations of other women struggling to be good.

Like Carmen, who worships her Latin Cosmo girl mother, possessor of the highly prized "round, plumpy, high Mercedes-Benz ass." Carmen, however, is told she is "the ugly one. ... When I was a kid she would just back me into the mirror at home like a broken-down truck and she would poke at my spread like it was a jellyfish. 'Oh god, Carmen, Carmen, you've got the spread. Mira. Mira. It's bad, Carmen. You better work hard on a nice waist and a brain or no one will ever f -- you.' "

Or Bernice, who is taunted as a "chubbalah, Godzilla, fatso" girl. "Fat girls do everything double. We have to be funny. Fat girls give the best head. Fat girls always swallow." At "fat camp," Bernice sneaks out to go "chunky dunking" in the pool, where she and some other fat girls dive from the board, creating a huge wave that washes away the beach chairs. "It felt so good. We did some fat girl water ballet. It was Swan Ass Lake."

Humor has always been Ensler's linchpin in making private tortures so very public.

"If it wasn't funny, there's no way we could tolerate thinking about it," she said.

It's not a style of feminism everyone likes. The same "Vagina Monologues" that catapulted her from being a little-known playwright to becoming what some see as the Joan of Arc of a global movement for women's rights has earned her the enmity of some feminists who find her hopelessly naive and accuse her of trivializing serious issues -- navel-gazing is a common slam at Ensler -- and even of objectifying women's bodies.

Ensler is puzzled, if unperturbed, by criticism.

"I really believe when things are funny, ideas go into the bodies of human beings," she said. "One of the reasons why the women's movement has not been successful is because it has not landed in the body."

Pointing to her head, she said, "It's all up here."

That's clearly not what she feels happens onstage.

"Women don't really exist in this culture," Ensler said. "We only have sound-bite versions of ourselves. What's amazing to me is when people see the show, something gets released in them. They see their deep essential selves. That's what I think can happen here."
The Good Body: Opens tonight and runs through July 25 at the American ConservatoryTheater's Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. (415) 749-2228 or see

E-mail Annie Nakao at .