EDITOR’S NOTE: This review contains mature, though appropriate, content. Since our reader base consists of not only adults but young adults as well, select words have been censored out of respect to those readers parents/guardians.
SALT LAKE CITY — As a man, I anticipated that walking into a production of “The Vagina Monologues” would be like throwing a steak to a den of lionesses. The piece tends to have an anti-male bias and carries with it a stigma of being a 2-hour “man bashing” session. However, this was not the case at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. They took the piece and instead bolstered understanding and awareness for all audience members in attendance, regardless of sex.
The Vagina Monologues is an episodic series of monologues written by Eve Ensler based on approximately 200 interviews conducted with women of all ages and walks of life discussing one topic: their vaginas. Ensler wrote the piece in 1996 as a celebration of the vagina and the connection between female identity and genitalia. However in 1998 the play was used to found the V-day movement. V-day is a global movement to end violence against women and girls that raises funds and awareness through benefit productions of The Vagina Monologues and other like works.
All proceeds from the Westminster College V-day went to The Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake, including ticket sales, concessions and silent-auction items. Each year there is also a global V-day Spotlight Campaign to raise awareness about current atrocities committed against women. This year the spotlight was placed on the Democratic Republic of Congo and the femicide and routine use of rape and sexual torture as a weapon of war in a 14-year conflict that has seen nearly 5 million casualties. In honor of this spotlight, a segment from Eve Ensler’s newest collection of monologues I Am an Emotional Creature: the Secret Life of Girls around the World was added to the performance. This segment, entitled A Teenage Girl’s Guide to Surviving Sex Slavery, featured cast member Amanda Ruiz as she related the story of a girl kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery in Africa in what was by far the most powerful and heartbreaking individual performance of the evening.
Westminster “V-Team” took Ensler’s play and made it not only celebratory of the female experience, but eye-opening and inspiring in regards to the V-day crusade. Even before entering the theatre the lobby was draped in what was called the Clothesline art project. The Clothesline project invited men and women who have had some sort of interaction with sexual abuse to create and decorate t-shirts representing that experience. The project was deemed “a visual display of the stories behind the statistics” and, even before entering the theatrical space, established the aims and the intentions of the V-day benefit performance.
The show itself was held in a concert hall with a very informal feel. Pre-show there was a slide presentation featuring quotes from important women (and men) such as Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mark Twain regarding the importance, value and treatment of women. The set was virtually non-existent. There was a row of stools with a row of red pillows directly in front upon which the company of 27 sat, and further downstage center a red music stand with microphone and stool, and directly to the right and left of center were three black music stands with microphones on each side. As the play progressed there was an introductory portion read from the sides by one or more cast members and the main narrative monologue delivered by a solo-performer at center stage. (I realized later in the evening that this set up was, in fact, a vaginal motif to aid in the celebration of the female anatomy) The performance was not fully memorized, and was set up as more of a dramatic reading with each actor reading their monologue from the script. Creating this staged reading atmosphere enhanced the informal feeling that preceded the show and helped give the audience a meta-theatrical focal point. By being made aware that this was a reading, the audience was encouraged to focus on the words and stories being told and not on the performers themselves.
There were definite times when acting left something to be desired and other times when I was blown away by the emotional capacities of these women. However, the acting was not the point of this piece. The focus was on awareness, celebration and understanding through the stories themselves, not the actors recreating them.
Some particular shining moments came in the second act with Cris Herrera’s vibrant performance of “My Angry Vagina” in which she listed injustices done to her vagina and vaginas everywhere (i.e. tampons, douche sprays and gynecological examinations) in both a very serious and very humorous way. This piece opened the second act after intermission and began with Herrera standing in the middle of the audience yelling about her angry vagina and then proceeded down to the stage to give what I can only call a stand-up comedy-esque rant about the subject. She had the audience rolling in the aisles, pausing several times for much due applause. Another poignant moment was the monologue entitled “Reclaiming —-” in which actor Alivia Huffman instructed the audience on why and how the word ‘—-’ must be reclaimed as a positive term for the vagina. This monologue concluded with Huffman stepping in front of the microphone and insisting, along with the rest of the cast that the audience scream, shout and reclaim the word ‘—-’. So motivating was this portion that there were women literally jumping to their feet shouting the word repeatedly. I even joined in the screaming and was able to, in part, participate in the moment. Despite the fact that I will never be able to claim ‘—-’ as my own, I felt both empowered and privileged to be a part of this barbaric yawp; this ultimate cathartic moment for women.
Other soloists, such as Julie Werner, Hailee Campbell and Robin Smith, among others, rocked the house with pieces dealing with everything from child rape to a humorous assertion of wearing a short skirt and what that means. Also included in the piece was an inspiring segment entitled “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy, Or So They Tried” where three transgendered performers gave voice to an important, yet often marginalized part of the female community.
All in all, the performance of this play was incredible. The focus on the stories was well placed and truly promoted the V-day agenda they set out too support. Rarely do I see a performance where I cannot help but leap to my feet in applause and appreciation for a job well done, but the Westminster “V-team” did just that. Director Jennifer Niedfeldt and all those who contributed should feel very proud of the work they did in taking a stand in the fight to end violence against women. This was my first experience with V-day, but it will certainly not be my last, and while this production may have closed we can still be a part of the cause. V-day is an annual event on a global scale, and will continue to be such until the world is changed, and after seeing tonight’s production I know that it will – one performance at a time.