As I stood outside of the doors in Emerson Suites on Saturday, February 16, the anticipation for a first time viewer of “The Vagina Monologues” created the same emotional confusion as that of entering a haunted house. Part of me wanted to mentally prepare for two hours of camp and hilarity, while the other part of me was prepared to be genuinely terrified. The group of friends that I went with was in the same boat that I was — a tad worried but open-minded.
With a soundtrack of Tracy Chapman, Michelle Branch, and other female-ballads from the 90s to set the mood, the crowd took their seats, the lights went dark and the director Ella Carr took the stage to greet the packed house.
The first surprise of the evening was the amount of male participation in the crowd. Along with some salt-and-pepper types who I assume to be fathers, about 35% of the audience consisted of male students.
Rock Hard Dance Company, who started off the show, tangled and untangled themselves in a dance of liberation. Coiling themselves around both each other and long strips of fabric, the members of fluid interpretive dance that felt organic, yet precise. Then the dancers trickled off stage, and the main event began.
“The Vagina Monologues” has served as a voice for women’s sexuality and social stigmas surrounding rape and abuse for the last nineteen years. What started as casual conversations between friends and creator Eve Ensler transformed into a series of monologues encompassing the female global experience.
Rather than the typical directorial approach to staging monologues (one monologue per actor), Senior Ella Carr decided to divide up the monologues into individual lines and distribute them throughout the cast of actors. Performed on a stage in the round, this ensemble-style presentation provided an added dimension to the show’s story telling as each unique tale became the story of every woman.
The requirement for the actors to play multiple roles simultaneously individualized and universalized the characteristics of the stories. The unique voices compiling each tale varied in conviction, perception and attitude, emphasizing the widespread subjectivity of universally shared experiences. One poignant example was the dominatrix monologue; the actors all presented a wide spectrum of sexual energy that stemmed from a very honest place. The actors were forced to play a number of roles on stage, but within each role resided a component of themselves.
A two-time actor and one-time director of “The Vagina Monologues”, senior Nikki Veit emphasized this unique characteristic from this year’s production.
“I was speaking as myself, I wasn’t putting on a character,” said Veit. “This isn’t one woman’s story, this is a universal story, and we all have our own personal experiences to bring to this.”
The actors’ identification to their characters created ample room for multiple stand-out performances, both on an individual and collective basis. Audiences could feel Nikki Veit’s conviction and passion during “Angry Vagina”, a role she said she connected with most. Junior Imani Brammer and Freshman Katherine Frappolli both displayed the best variety within their assigned roles, memorably giving life to a wide variety of subject matter in “Vagina Workshop” and “Angry Vagina”
Though the ensemble’s diverse nature kept the audience on their toes, there were a few monologues that sacrificed a bit of intimacy in their ensemble performance. In the monologue entitled “Village”, a Bosnian woman discusses the intimate details of being brutally raped. Along with the robotic choreography, the scattered nature of the spoken dialogue desensitized the audience to the severity of the matter. Despite these monologues exemplifying the horror and turmoil experienced by a multitude of women across the globe, this monologue felt too personal to be deconstructed so much on stage.
Additionally, the “Happy Fact” that was repeated four times throughout the show became redundant. The differing portrayals of this regurgitated fact became recognized too late to be affective, though Brammer’s and Veit’s performances surged with powerful sexuality.
The monologue “Cunt” took the derogatory nature of this term and appropriated it into a phrase of celebratory and empowering. This monologue completely redefined the word as the actors grunted and moaned the word until they “climaxed”. Undoubtedly, the associations with the word for both men and women in the audience will never be the same. I had the pleasure of attending the final night of the performance on Saturday night. The “Cunt” monologue encouraged audience members to join in—“say it with me! Cunt! Cunt!”—a mantra only the viewers at the Saturday night performance felt comfortable enough to yell.
Freshman Lauren Hunt—a first-time performer in “The Vagina Monologues”—reflected on the audience’s vulnerability playing a role in the performance.
“Because the audience was all facing each other, it’s not only intimate with the actresses, but it’s intimate with one-another. The audience has to have a good dynamic; if you don’t have people that connect with each other, if you don’t have the right energy in the room, no one is going to feel comfortable.”
There were moments were the performance felt very interactive, but for first-time goers the call to “say it with me” was lost in the whirlwind of sexual ecstasy. The audience was certainly getting excited with the actors during the performance, but such a typically intimate experience of climaxing felt uncomfortable for us to join in. This point in the performance created the most separation between the audience and the actors, ironically when the performance called for the most participation. I felt like I was watching—and enjoying—a moment I should not be invited to watch or enjoy. It wasn’t clear who the actors were talking to when they crooned “say it with me!” They should have made it clearer that they weren’t addressing an invisible lover, themselves, the other actors, or their vagina, but the audience.
Conversely, the feeling of the other orgasm simulation was vary blatant and created a sense of female camaraderie through humor. The exaggerated variations of moans in the moaning monologue—from the Jewish “Oy veyyyy!” moan to the Irish-Catholic silent, stifled moan—were the perfect balance between realism and absurdity. Though this portion did not call for the audience members to participate, the booming laughter along with scattered claps of agreement created a dialogue between the audience and the actor where the “Cunt” monologue had missed the mark.
For this exact reason, the ensemble took away some of the intimacy of the monologues if presented by one person. But overall, my preconceived notions of the performance being uncomfortably funny or uncomfortably man-hating were completely trumped.
In conjunction with the performance itself, this year’s theme of 1 Billion Rising incorporated a number of events to promote V-Day, a global activist movement to stop violence against women. Each year community members and college students join the V-Day College and Community Campaigns to produce annual benefit performances of “The Vagina Monologues.” Towards the end of the performance, the 1 Billion Rising video was projected onto the walls of Emerson Suites. This year, members of the Ithaca College community along with 350 people from town, participated in a dance mob supporting 1 Billion Rising. The Vagina Monologues also held a number of activities and events leading up to the theatrical performance.
The connectedness, the movement, the power. This years performance of the Vagina Monologues contained so much more than the performance itself. Director Ella Carr said when the actors’ reflected on the performance, “Many of [the actors] said that in the talk-back ‘I think we made a change today, performing this show.’ And I don’t think I could say that any other time I’ve performed in the Vagina Monologues, or been apart of it.”
Reflecting on her own experience with The Vagina Monologues, Carr said, “There was a special connection with this group of girls. When I see them in the hallway, there’s an overwhelming feeling of love and joy and celebration.”
Find out more about Vday and 1 Billion Rising at www.vday.com