Left - Belinda Small. Cover - Samantha Colwell and Belinda Small. Photos - Sean Young.
"I bet you're worried”. It’s the first line of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's groundbreaking, hugely successful mid-90’s play that got women talking about, thinking about and even looking at what was going on…down there.
But, truth be told, I didn’t feel all that worried about seeing a play that covers this fairly taboo topic. After all, you know what’s coming just from the title (and if you didn’t, then the first two minutes of the play should clear things up nicely for you). So, a series of deeply personal, confronting and hilarious monologues about the vagina? I was ready.
What I wasn’t ready for, and what eventually disappointed me was the amateurish staging of the play by THAT Production Company, the choices made by director Cassandra Ramsay and the youth and obvious inexperience of some of the performers in the 3-person ensemble.
To write The Vagina Monologues back in 1996, Ensler interviewed over 200 women, questioning them about everything from their most personal sexual experiences to: “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?". Using this research, she crafted a series of monologues all about the vagina. It’s a play that goes from avid celebration to horrifying mutilation, from the birth of a child to the death of innocence. It’s well-written, topical and hits the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to the way a woman thinks about what’s between her legs.
It’s been performed all over the world, (including Off-Broadway and in London’s West End), translated into 45 languages, adapted for television and it’s lauded as the work that broke the mould when it came to plays for women.
But, in this incarnation by the Brisbane company, THAT Production Company, I think the well-established success of the play itself left the director and the actors feeling intimidated by some very big shoes to fill. And they just weren’t up to the task.
To be fair, this must be a very difficult show to perform, because at its core it really is just a series of speeches about vaginas. There’s no plotline, no main protagonist, no character arc to work with, no overall climax to build to (definitely no pun intended). So, for the show to work, and to hold an audience’s attention for almost two hours, the actors need to genuinely inhabit every monologue and deliver the story in the most truthful, natural, raw and entertaining way they can.
But young actors Samantha Colwell and Charleen Marsters struggled to connect with the audience during any of their more serious pieces. The pressure of having to perform all alone, with no one else to play off, got the better of them. It lead to forgotten lines and a constant look of frightened deer. During the monologues, they shouted, threw their hands up, they overacted. And they never found the balance and the quiet, chilling moments in each piece that I know would have had the audience enthralled.
Where they both did well was in the funnier pieces, perhaps because they felt more comfortable with the lighter subject matter and could just have some fun with it. Colwell was particularly good in “My Vagina is Angry” (about the torture of gynaecologist visits and tampons) and Colwell brought a hilarious amount of energy to a segment that in polite company would be called “The C Word”. I hope they can relax over the next few performances, forget about all the other actors who have ever played these parts, and just make each piece their own.
Belinda Small was much more adept at expressing the reality in her pieces. She’s studied extensively and her experience shows as she inhabited every character totally. Her monologue as a survivor of a brutal rape was measured, poignant and had me near tears. She is excellent and strong in this production, and I wish director Cassandra Ramsay had nurtured her entire ensemble better to ensure that the other two performers could handle the task as well as Small did.
Ramsay made life even more difficult for her already anxious cast by asking them to change into a new outfit for each monologue. Having to zip up a dress or pull on boots between monologues must have been incredibly stressful for the actors and they were sometimes still trying to get into costume as they began speaking. Utilising simple props or accessories for the actors, rather than costume, would have sufficed and allowed the actors to really concentrate on bringing each character to life using only their bodies and voices.
Ramsay’s choice to leave all the American references in the play was also a strange one. In her Director’s Notes, she says she had thought carefully about how to adapt the play to reach the Brisbane audience of 2010. So why retain mentions of the Grand Canyon, Atlantic City, pennies, quarters and "the Jewish orgasm"? Perhaps it was a copyright issue? But if the play has been adapted into over 45 languages, there must be wiggle room to make a fresh performance relevant to the audience seeing it. The American slant was thoroughly grating, and it only served to take the play one step further away from the audience of Brisbane.
The Vagina Monologues is a well-written, wonderfully accurate reflection of a woman’s relationship with her body. I don’t think open-minded Brisbane audiences are going to be incredibly worried by the subject matter (and if you are, then what are you seeing it for?). After all, we’re all grown-ups here, we can handle it. The main question now is: can this director and her actors?
THAT Production Company presents
THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES
By Eve Ensler
Director Cassandra Ramsay
Venue: Twelfth Night Theatre, 4 Cintra Street, Bowen Hills
Dates: Tuesday 16th March – Saturday 20th March 2010 at 8pm
Tickets: From $18.00
Bookings: 07 3252 5122