Sunday, March 20, 2005

Review: The Vagina Monologues

Sex, as a subject of discussion, usually swings between two extremes: either it isn't talked about at all, or it's talked about as a joke or an exploit. And that's unfortunate because, as with most other human activities, Sex is a fascinating subject for intelligent discussion. It was with this frame of mind that I went to watch Silliman University's local production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues."

Now, with a title like "The Vagina Monologues", we can all expect a little bit of controversy. Unfortunately, the literature preceding the play (as well as literature following it) seemed to dwell almost exclusively on the controversies that they seem to have forgotten to address what the play was all about. This being my first viewing of the play, what could I expect? I wanted humor, drama, and most importantly, some perspective into the Mysterious Mind of Woman.

True to its title, "The Vagina Monologues" does feature candid discussions on the female sex organ. However, it is when the play focuses on it that it falls a little flat. Attribute it as you might to cultural or gender differences, but when it gets to talking about the much vaunted vagina, the play feels a little contrived. The questions "What would your vagina wear?" and "What would your vagina say?" -- a recurring theme in the play -- seem a tad artificial. "The Vagina Workshop," about a woman's reawakening by way of a workshop, is far too Western.

If the play had focused exclusively on the female sex organ, the humor would have given way to tedium quickly enough. Fortunately, there were bits and pieces of female insight shining through. The most poignant -- and easily the best performance -- was the segment entitled "The Flood", about a sexually repressed woman's memories and experiences. "I Was 12. My Mother Slapped Me," a series of vignettes on women's recollections of their first period, was a simply priceless perspective on the matter for a clueless male like me. "I Was There in the Room", about the playwright's experience at her granddaughter's delivery, was sublimely touching.

Closely tied as it is with V-Day, "The Vagina Monologues" also offered pieces on women's experiences with violence. Easily the best piece is "My Vagina Was My Village," which shocks with its juxtaposition of a carefree innocent and war-weary shell-shocked survivor. "The Memory of Her Face", a terrifying account of women scarred with acid in Pakistan, works because it is gruesome and relentless in its imagery. However, "The Crooked Braid," about violence against Native American women, lags a bit because the experiences seem alien and remote; it ought to have been localized to the Filipino stories for better effect.

When the play goes for laughs, it plays on the crass. (I suppose, since it's women who are cracking it, I don't feel too guilty about laughing.) The orgasmic catalogue of "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy" is a real crowd-pleaser; but it does lead me to wonder: is that it easy to fake it? The play hits the bull's-eye with the guffaws, though, when it wanders into the vernacular. Case in point are the different nicknames for the female organ as given in the Introduction.

Complementing the play was the ensemble cast consisting of students and professionals from Dumaguete City. I found it hard to believe that some prominent local personalities would actually be performing, but there they were. Performances were quite solid all throughout, but the real standouts in my opinion were Laurie Raymundo in "The Flood", Louella Dawn Chiu in "The Little Coochie Snortcher That Could", and Wednesday Gay Gaudan. Ms. Raymundo was the very portrait of reserved elegance; Ms Chiu's voices portraying a girl at ages six, twelve, and sixteen were spot on. Ms. Gaudan was, well, simply outrageously hilarious.

Finally, I must commend the direction and management of the play. With a cast of close to a hundred, it certainly must not have been an easy task to manage the scenes as seamlessly as they appeared. And yet seamless they did appear. The relaxed bistro-like setting, allowing the actors to come and go for their parts while keeping the whole cast in view, was simply inspired.

It's simply a darn shame that a production like "The Vagina Monologues" should run for only one night. All the preparation that must have gone into it certainly deserves more than one showing. And, if nothing else, it should give everyone, even the tongue-waggers, a chance to see what the hullaballoo is really all about.