I walked into the Denver Center's Stage Theatre harboring the darkest of suspicions. I'd read all about The Vagina Monologues -- who hasn't?--but somehow I'd managed to miss the show on its previous visits to Colorado. It sounded like a lot of other allegedly feminist phenomena that bother me. Take breast cancer (yeah, please!): A movement that began as women coming together for mutual strength and comfort, in the hope of discovering some facts about cause and some funds for a cure, burgeoned over the years into a mass outbreak of kitsch, sentimentality and self-congratulation. Until a month or two ago, when news of worrisome results in an ongoing study made headlines, no one wanted to talk about the cancer dangers of estrogen replacement therapy -- and note the continuing lack of curiosity about the birth-control pill. Meanwhile, there's thunderous silence about the pollution of air, earth and water with estrogenic chemicals that may be a primary cause of reproductive diseases, although Dianne Dumanoski detailed the dangers a few years ago in a first-rate book, Our Stolen Future, as did Sandra Steingraber in Living Downstream. We don't want to know that. We want to don pink hats and participate in feel-good events sponsored by drug and cosmetic companies.
So when I read that The Vagina Monologues had morphed from a play into a mission, that it travels from city to city recruiting local women as performers and that playwright Eve Ensler uses it to raise money to prevent violence against women, my response was skeptical.
From the sound of things, The Vagina Monologues didn't seem particularly thrilling as art, either. The "let's question ordinary people about a particular topic and then shape their words into a play" thing has been done and done, from Chorus Line to Quilters to The Laramie Project.
And let's get personal. I wasn't so keen to sit in an auditorium with hundreds of other women and a sprinkling of men and spend the evening thinking about my vagina. I mean, for God's sake, I'm English.
I was wrong on all counts. Turns out women really do have amazing things to say about their vaginas -- raunchy, poetic, funny and surprising things -- because their vaginas represent a very deep part of themselves. And when you select intelligently from their words, it does add up to a revelatory evening. So after an hour or so in the audience -- oh, how I hate to admit this -- I was feeling good about my woman-ness and powerful in a kinda sexy, life-affirming way and sensing a kinship with the other people in the room. It was the female version of being at one of those patriotic, flag-waving rallies, except that you weren't revving up to kill anyone. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The format is simple. Three women, dressed identically in red shirts and black pants, sit in a row on stage and read. On the night I saw the show, they were actresses Glynis Bell, Margot Kidder and Rhonda Ross. Although not all the monologues are equally successful, there are some real gems. An elderly woman poignantly describes her shame and estrangement from her own sexuality, a sexuality so powerful that it rocks her dreams and gives rise to a fantasy in which her secretions become a literal flood. A middle-aged woman, given an upper-class British accent by Margot Kidder, talks about how she discovered her clitoris in a workshop. A six-year-old says her vagina smells like snowflakes. There are darker references: child molestation, the use of rape as a war tactic, clitoridectomy. (I found myself wishing the women present knew about Dorothy Rupert, the onetime Colorado state senator who worked so tirelessly and so long to make clitoridectomy illegal here.) The sequence of speeches is shaped, not random. It seems odd for a moment when a Bosnian woman's account of her rape is followed by a passionate rant on the glories of the vagina and against all things that chafe or irritate it, from thong underwear to the gynecologist's stirrups, but it makes sense. The second speaker is reclaiming the organ for herself, for women, and asserting its atavistic mystery and power.
The final monologue of the evening is Ensler's meditation on the birth of her grandchild. Interestingly, since this is the work of an actual writer as opposed to an edited transcription, it's actually one of the less compelling pieces. But Rhonda Ross gives it such a heartfelt reading that it moves us nonetheless.
Some feminists find the fact that The Vagina Monologues seems to define women by their sexuality troubling. We worked so hard, after all, to stop being defined only as wives and mothers. But for decades, men got away with using the penis as an all-encompassing metaphor for power and artistry. Norman Mailer asserted that no one could be a writer without one. And there was all the Freudian blather about penis envy. Who, equipped with an organ as exquisitely sensitive to pleasure as the vagina -- and capable, moreover, of pushing babies into the world -- could possibly feel such a thing, the play asks.
Besides, far from being defined by their vaginas, the women in the play use thoughts about them as a launching point for all kinds of original assertions.
Margot Kidder, Rhonda Ross and Glynis Bell are amazing, all of them poised and expressive, each one entirely different. Bell is most compelling as the 72-year-old woman struggling to repress her sexuality. Ross is funny, charming, funky and full of explosive feeling; she has the audience in the palm of her hand. Margot Kidder tops all. By the time you read this, she'll have been replaced by Denver jazz singer Hazel Miller, who by all accounts was sensational in the Boulder showing (her run goes through August 11). Lannie Garrett follows. But what a shame to miss Kidder: She's a revelation, a force of nature. I remembered her vaguely as Lois Lane to Christopher Reeves's Superman, but nothing I knew prepared me for the generosity of her live performance. She's relaxed, raunchy, intelligent and gut-splittingly funny. She takes huge risks. She has one of those voices that can go from a purr to a roar, from plum-in-the-mouth upper class to real down-home. The interplay among these three extraordinary actresses was reason enough to see the Vagina Monologues.
Skip the pink hats, but I'll happily march in this parade.