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Vesting vaginas with a voice

The Vagina Monologues brings important sexual issues to the forefront

Front bottom, marshmallow, beaver: euphemisms for the first word of the play’s title, chanted by the actresses on stage one by one. The scene is set with soft, warm mood lighting wreathing the pinprick Christmas lights strung across the stage, as the 13th production of The Vagina Monologues at McGill launches into its opening act.

The performance is put on by V-Day McGill, the local chapter of the international organization founded in 1998 by Vagina Monologues playwright, Eve Ensler. On the day of sweet romance and passionate love, the performers on stage candidly confront subjects like rape, female genital mutilation, misogyny, and feminine self-discovery with a mixture of poise and frustration.

In all, nine monologues are performed, with old standbys like “Cunt” and “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.A few monologues stand out in particular. In “The Flood,” the actress connects with the audience through a soft voice that begs you to pay the utmost attention, and though you need to strain a bit, the voice somehow never becomes inaudible. The audience hangs on her every word, coming to understand the character of the sexually repressed elderly woman who comes to life in depth and colour. It feels like she’s having an intimate conversation with every individual audience member; her intermittent, shameful silences provoke the audience to address internalized echoes of erotic embarrassment.

“It stopped being a thing that speaks a long time ago,” she says, referring to her inner sexual self. “You got an old lady to talk about down there. You feel better now?” she demands, and we nod yes. Yes, we feel better. The silence we’re steeped in every day of our life is painful, and the monologues in this play give voice not only to the characters’ stories but to all the things we, as women, have hidden inside. Yes, we feel better – we feel liberated.

“I felt like an astronaut re-entering the atmosphere of the earth,” Lucile Smith’s character affirms in the “Vagina Workshop” scene. It’s an apt description of the bewitching, enlightening experience of watching the entire play, as the topic of female sexuality and the ubiquitous vagina that the women in the audience take for granted is illuminated in a novel way that makes the commonplace seem unfamiliar and delightful.

The beauty of this play is the agency it gives all the characters in the play, the women whose stories they tell, and the audience members themselves. In the “My Vagina Was My Village” monologue, inspired by a Bosnian woman who was raped by soldiers during wartime, the actor’s nervous body language under the smothering weight of her terrible memory transforms into a cleansing anger as she builds toward a cathartic expulsion of her shame, silence, and fear. Through her performance, we give form to the haunting spectre of sexual oppression, misogyny, and violence – and forcefully exorcise it.

Although there’s an occasional lull in energy, and the performances and choreography could at times be uneven, it’s fruitless to judge Vagina Monologues as a traditional play. It’s more about creating an environment of openness, a visceral experience, full of emotional catharsis. To reduce it to its minutiae is to misunderstand the piece’s point.

The play’s final scene is a monologue performed in chorus by the ensemble cast: a rousing speech about One Billion Rising, the campaign launched by Ensler for the 15th anniversary of V-Day. This is not the first time the chorus is used in the performance, but it is by far its most effective implementation. The show’s end is defined by motion, as the chorally-delivered words swell into a beat that takes over the performers’ bodies, and infiltrates into the audience. The clapping and stamping beat stands out, especially against the stasis that has defined the majority of the performance. A dynamic ending to a dynamically imagined performance piece. A standing ovation. And scene.