On Victoria Petrovich’s set for The Good Body at the Rep, shiny panels reflect clouds and pale blue skies. Projected slides take us from America to Brazil, Africa, and Afghanistan. Standing on small pedestals, six female mannequins face front, their size-two bodies tattooed with blue patterns. A beige Ab Rollerball, waiting to crunch another six-pack, sits on a raked, blue-and-white–checked stage. Eve Ensler’s monologues examine women’s obsession with beauty — that launch-a-thousand-ships look that millions spend trillions to approximate.
Petrovich’s slender mannequins comment on the mindlessness of pursuing a platonic ideal: they’re headless.
Ensler’s famous for her Vagina Monologues, which led to V-Day (a global movement to end violence against women) and enabled Ensler to travel the world. She interviewed ethnically diverse women about their bodies. Most agreed that the one thing they would change was their weight. “Maybe I identify with these women,” Ensler said in an interview, “because I have bought into the idea that if my stomach were flat, then I would be good, and I would be safe…accepted, admired, important, loved.” Instead she has felt the opposite, “and my stomach is the carrier, the pouch, for all that self-hatred.”
In 1978, Susan Sontag published Illness as Metaphor, a still-important book about how people judge the infirm by their illness: disease reveals psychological failings; defects of character can bring about disease. In the 19th Century, people with TB were deemed “fallen” and punished for sins unnamed. To this day, faulty immune systems can incite negative speculations about the mental — and moral — health of the sufferer.
Ensler shifts Sontag’s thesis from illness to the body as metaphor. Each imperfect body part becomes an outward sign, says Ensler, “that you are born wrong and bad.” And that you can always tell “good” people because they look “good.”
The Good Body attacks that attitude. Tormented by her stomach (“my most serious committed relationship”), a character named Eve (i.e., Ensler) encounters 11 international women who have been able, or are still trying, to feel at home in their bodies. The subject and Ensler’s findings aren’t necessarily new (Naomi Wolf’s 1991 Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women takes a more in-depth look). What give the show its freshness are Ensler’s humor, a soul-bearing openness, and a splendid production at the San Diego Rep.
To open its 33rd season, the Rep has cast three of its most beloved actors: Carole Foreman, Deanna Driscoll, and Linda Libby — and they cut loose. Driscoll scores as Eve, the flustered narrator. Foreman and Libby play everyone from Helen Gurley Brown (Foreman) still clinging to the ideal at age 80, to a Brentwood matron (Libby) wanting to improve her sex life. Directed with flair and depth by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, and wearing Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s excellent, around-the-world-in-80-intermissionless-minutes costumes, the trio excels with their roles and gives to each an unfettered emotional honesty.
* * *
When Tom first sees Helen in a crowded self-serve restaurant, she looks safe to him. He’s sort of/sort of not going with Jeannie, a coworker. And Helen’s a very large woman. So, there’s no fear of sitting with her because, well, how could Jeannie object to someone definitely not his “type”?
But then, as he picks at a salad and she eats a foot-long wedge of pizza, Tom and Helen open up, share, laugh. Helen sees attractive qualities in Tom, possibly — dare she consider it? — a heart-meld. And she isn’t what he expected at all (whatever that is). Helen’s a librarian who loves Alistair MacLean war movies: maybe because his characters go headlong — where only “eagles dare” — into forbidden territory.
Author Neil LaBute always cuts to the chase, be it a screenplay (The Company of Men) or a theater piece (The Mercy Seat, an unflinching take on 9/11). LaBute’s Fat Pig, now in a tight, thought-provoking production at OnStage Playhouse, is the second in his trilogy of plays about America’s obsession with beauty — the one size few can fit. Unlike The Good Body’s personal monologues, LaBute dramatizes the obsession from the outside. To change attitudes toward beauty, he suggests throughout, you must also change the eye of the beholder.
Against his wishes, Tom falls headlong for Helen. He’s never felt as comfortable, as trusting, as elated. But come on, you can almost hear him say, he’s a svelte Montague, and she’s…a Capulet. As they grow closer, he moves her more and more indoors, away from the public eye. After they’ve been together for a while, most often in darkness, his company has a beach party. Should he invite Helen?
As Tom and Helen, Brendan Cavalier and Carla Nell do touching tandem work, much of it in unspoken looks and gestures. Nell plays Helen as if she’s already read the script: been there, done that, even got the T-shirt. But she’ll reach for the gold despite all warnings. Cavalier unites Tom’s fears and honesty with revealing nervous ticks. His head and heart are miles apart.
Ryan Ross plays Tom’s cynical office mate, the fat, pigheaded Carter, with slick deliveries and convincing misogyny. Carter says, “You date all these gals and act like you’re Mr. Sensitive…but you get bored or cornered or feel a touch nervous and you drop ’em like they were old produce.” As jilted Jeannie, a smoldering Jenna Dawsey gets the comeback. Men, she says, are just “baby boys who run around in nice clothes.” And “all they really want to do is breast-feed for the rest of their days.”
The Good Body, by Eve Ensler
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Carole Foreman, Deanna Driscoll, Linda Libby; scenic design, Victoria Petrovich; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Tom Jones
Playing through September 28; Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.
The Fat Pig, by Neil LaBute
OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
Directed by Kym Pappas; cast: Carla Nell, Brendan Cavalier, Ryan Ross, Jenna Dawsey; scenic design, Pappas, Chris Renda; lighting, Chad Oakley; sound, Ashley Cole; costumer, Teri Brown
Playing through October 4; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-422-7787.