“Emotional Creature”—The indomitable Eve Ensler explores the complicated inner lives of girls in the stage adaptation of her best-selling book, at Berkeley Rep through July 15, 2012
“Beautiful is a country with gates around it. I will never be invited,” laments a girl from Johannesburg who is online and in an international chat room for anorectics. She has just binged on French fries and the group of girls chides her. Another girl has poured Clorox on her pizza to keep herself from eating it. “Genius” they all chime in. The online life of girls and body image is just one of the pieces that make up Emotional Creature, a new play by Tony award winner Eve Ensler, about the intensely emotional inner lives of teenage girls around the world, which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and runs through July 15, 2012
and then, in the fall, will move on to the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Based on Ensler’s best-selling book of the same name, Emotional Creature, is made of up a series of fictional monologues, ensemble pieces and songs about and for teen girls crafted by Ensler but inspired by girls she met around the globe. The cast is comprised of six talented young women, in their early twenties, who give powerful and heartfelt expression to very believable stories highlighting the intensely emotional and complex worlds of girls. Cliques, bullying, online life, body image, eating disorders, sex, sexual identity, abduction and sexual exploitation, and slavery, suicide, abortion, genital mutilation and plight of uneducated child factory workers are the topics broached in 90 minutes. Emotional Creature, in Ensler’s own words, is intended as “a reckoning…an act of empowerment for girls…and an illumination for parents and for us all.”
It’s leaning in that direction but, on its opening night, Creature came off more like short attention span theatre, covering too much ground in too confusing a way to have the enduring impact of The Vagina Monologues (1996) which inspired VDay, a global non-profit movement that has raised over $75 million for women’s anti-violence groups, or The Good Body (2004) which addressed womens’ obsessions with their bodies.
The show opens with a heart-piercing monologue from an American girl (Molly Carden) in a suburban high school who is trying to justify her existence after being dumped by the clique she thought she had been accepted by. “I’m so tragically in the middle with not one outstanding characteristic. I have nothing going for me but them.” As Carden’s character spirals into a blob of self-hatred, desperate to be accepted at any price, we are hit with the utter cruelty of high school and its pathetic social politics. Shunned because she was “accidentally nice” to Wendy in front of the clique’s leader Julie, the girl feels terrible because she tried to win her way back in to the group by being mean to Wendy in front of them. She actually likes Wendy, who is kind and courageous. Wendy used to be high up in the clique but got fed up and left and is much happier away from their control tactics. The piece is a shout out to girls everywhere in this situation.
As the piece fades, the girls all break into a defiant vibrant dance and rap piece “I dance because…” Wonderfully staged by Jo Bonney, the girls dance on Myung Hee Cho’s set of three roundish platforms with a large curving screen providing a hip background of pulsating colors, factoids, and photos. Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s songs, with catchy and bracing lyrics by Ensler, punctuate the emotionality throughout.
Sade Namei gives a memorable and funny performance as a Middle Eastern girl whose parents forced a nose job on her at age 16. “When you met me, you met my nose; it put everyone at ease…gave me permission…made me daring.” Now, she laments that she is pretty but, “Pretty girls don’t really look like anything in particular…they look like what everyone dreams of looking, like but they don’t look like anything you can really identify.” What is missing from her powerful monologue is the direct observation that her parents forced the operation on her to make her more marriageable, which would further drive home the gender issue (girls must be conventionally pretty to be attractive to men) that Ensler is presumably trying to challenge.
The performance tackles a number of sexual issues that teens grapple with—sexual desire and conduct, pregnancy, abortion, sexual orientation, and sexual abuse. Emily S. Grosland, who anchors the show with her marvelous voice and distinctive stage presence, wraps herself in a lace wedding veil and delivers a riveting farewell monologue to her parents who refuse to acknowledge that she is gay. Given that LGBT youth are frequently harassed and ostracized at school, and their suicide rates are higher than those of the general population, the piece is a heartfelt plea to parents to wake up and act with compassion and to accept their children’s sexual orientation.
Less effective because of their sequencing and lack of development, which make them seem out of the blue, are two international pieces about sex crimes. Molly Carden plays a 16 year-old Eastern European teen who ran away from a hellish abusive, alcoholic home. She was raped by her father’s best friend, subsequently raped by the police and ended up a sexual slave. “I am a garbage pail, a receptacle. I don’t know why I was born. I am a rape opening. There is nothing left of me. I am about to become extinct.” In a monologue that follows, Joaquina Kalukango powerfully portrays a girl from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa who was abducted while on vacation, raped repeatedly for years, and impregnated. To survive, she created a set of rules that she repeats poignantly on stage—“build a hole inside of you and crawl into it.”
Olivia Oguma delivers one of the evening’s funniest, but oddly out of place monologues, as Cha-ling, a 15 year-old uneducated Chinese worker who has been working in factory since she was a kid assembling Barbie dolls. “Barbie feels bad for all the girls who are starved to make her and starving to be like her. …she is so much smarter than people will ever let her be. Free Barbie! …Free Cha-ling! Let her out of this dirty sweaty factory.” While her reflections on Barbie are insightful, her situation, as a factory worker with severely limited options, is not a uniquely girl issue and our minds grapple to discern Ensler’s deeper political message which seems to be an indictment of labor practices, the entire international economic system and Barbie and all she stands for.
Emotional Creature tries to cover too much ground and in the process loses its poignancy and relevancy for the two groups of girls it addresses—young women in America (or the West) and young women in the rest of the world. Both are emotional creatures but their experiences and their suffering are not easily compared. The pain and anxiety associated with navigating cliques and girl’s body image and issues of sexual identity are not the same things as being sold into sex slavery (in Eastern Europe) or being abducted while on vacation and repeatedly raped for years and impregnated (somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa) or being expected to undergo genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) because it’s a tradition for women in the 30 countries that still practice it, or being trapped in a low wage factory job with no chance of advancement because you have no education and options. While this appears to be a sampling of the wide range of stories presented in Ensler’s book, the pieces create an uneven series because they are from such different contexts.
By the end of the performance, Ensler’s message is unclear. Is it, “It’s ok to have all of these intense feelings. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not”? The early scene, with the girls in the clique, points out the pathetic backbiting and control tactics that girls in cliques are indulging in and clearly has a “rise above it” theme to it. Rising above it implies being rational, using discernment, and realizing that girls who indulge in this behavior are weak and ignorant and don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t just be emotional, you also have to think. This becomes particularly important in the context of sexual behavior. Several of the pieces have girls speaking out about rape and violence perpetrated by men, in other words speaking out against free reign of limbic impulses. There’s a double message. We need to be MORE THAN emotional creatures or we’ll be what we accuse them of being. As it currently stands, any group of liberal, well-educated and empowered women could rip this to montage to shreds. With a few tweaks, its potental is unlimited. I’ve attached two videos below which capture Ensler very coherently explaining her motivations and her concerns about young girls being shut down emotionally. The work to be done is communicating these points effectively in Emotional Creature.
Despite its shortcomings, if you have a teen daughter, or a good girlfriend to go with, I recommend seeing the show. It provides a framework for conversation about what the world is like now for girls and what it was like when we were teens. I attended on opening night with a close friend and, from the minute we hit the lobby after the show, we engaged in a few short conversations with audience members—women of different ages—about their reactions. They raved about Eve Ensler but were confused about Emotional Creature’s message and who it was targeted at. On the way home, I talked with my friend about the horrors of high school now and then, in my case looking back 34 years, and in hers, 29. I did not tear up once during the performance, a telling sign, given it’s supposed to address emotions, but the girl talk afterwards went straight to my heart.
Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission
Starring: Ashley Bryant, Molly Carden, Emily S. Grosland, Joaquina Kalukango, Sade Namei, and Olivia Oguma
Creative Team: Written by Eve Ensler; Directed by Jo Bonney; Music and music direction by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder; Choreography by Luam; Designed by Myung Hee Cho (sets and costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lights), Jake Rodriguez (sound), and Shawn Sagady (video)
Special Outreach to Girls: Berkeley Rep has always embraced community outreach, but it has developed a special more structured outreach program for Emotional Creature and will distribute up to 3,000 FREE Community Access tickets to Bay Area non-profit organizations and government agencies serving young people, particularly girls, and at-risk individuals for whom cost of attending a performance would be a barrier. Kashira Robinson, in charge of this endeavor, reports that, so far, 800 free tickets have been allocated and that almost every performance will have a few audience members who are attending through this program. To request tickets, nominate a worthy charity, or donate funds towards this program, click here to be directed to Berkeley Rep’s form (PDF).
Free tastings: Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine, beer, chocolate, champagne, vodka, organic produce or other delights before select Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and Sunday 7pm performances. New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!
•Friday, June 29: Quady Winery / 7pm
•Saturday, June 30: Quady Winery / 7pm
•Sunday, July 1: Quady Winery / 6pm
•Friday, July 6: Quady Winery / 7pm
•Saturday, July 14: Urbano Cellars / 7pm
Details: Emotional Creature runs through July 15, 2012. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre) is located at 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Tickets start at $29, with discounts for students and seniors and half-price to anyone under the age of 30. Special $15 high-school rush: Starting 90 minutes before each performance of Emotional Creature, Berkeley Rep sell any open seats for $15 to anyone with a current high-school ID. Be sure to provide your email address when purchasing, so you can find out about future offerings for teens at Berkeley Rep. For tickets and additional information: http://www.berkeleyrep.org or phone 510.647.2949
EVE ENSLER TALKS ABOUT HER NEW PLAY EMOTIONAL CREATURE
EVE ENSLER READS FROM HER BEST-SELLING BOOK, I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE: THE SECRET LIVES OF GIRLS, ON WHICH HER NEW PLAY, EMOTIONAL CREATURE, IS BASED
July 6, 2012 Posted by genevaanderson | Theatre | Ashley Bryant, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Emily S. Grosland, Emotional Creature, Eve Ensler, female genital mutilation, girl bullying, girl cliques, Jake Rodriguez, Joaquina Kalukango, Lap Chi Chu, Molly Carden, Myung Hee Cho, Olivia Oguma, Pershing Square Signature Center, Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, Sade Namei, sexual identity, sexual orientation, sexual slavery, Shawn Sagady, The Good Body, The Vagina Monologues, VDay | Leave a Comment
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