The cast of Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature includes (from left) Ashley Bryant, Sade Namei, Olivia Oguma, Joaquina Kalukango, Emily S. Grosland and Molly Carden. Below: Carden delivers a monologue about a high-school girl facing ostracism by the popular girls. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
I’m going to paraphrase the title song of Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature, now having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Don’t tell them not to cry or to calm it down or be so extreme or be reasonable. They are emotional creatures. It’s how the world got made. After all, you don’t tell the Atlantic Ocean how to behave.
It’s a rousing number at the end of a compelling show, and it makes you want to scream and shout and, well, be an emotional creature yourself.
After her all her international success with The Vagina Monologues and the related V-Day events raising millions of dollars to combat violence against women around the world. After all her books and shows and personal struggles and triumphs, Ensler is still turning to theater as a means to agitate, to stir hearts and to make people want to scream and shout.
Emotional Creature, inspired by Ensler’s bestselling book I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, is all about teenage girls and young women around the globe, the struggles they endure and the challenges they (mostly) surmount. Body image, sexual violation and mutilation, teen pregnancy, plastic surgery – it’s all in here and much more, and it’s only a 90-minute show. Oh, and there’s singing and dancing.
In the best sense, Emotional Creature is like a 21st-century Free to Be You and Me, Marlo Thomas’ all-star 19742 project promoting acceptance and gender equality. Like that earlier album/book/”After-School Special,” Ensler’s show bursts with positive energy, powerful stories and inspiring performances. The songs, with music by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and lyrics by Ensler, are a lively addition to the mix (Vagina Monologues was only spoken word), and Luam’s choreography expresses ferocity and strength and erupting joy in equal measure.
Director Jo Bonney delivers a slick show that feels like activist vaudeville – song, dance, story, poetry slam, laughter, tears and mobilization of the troops. The simple platform set (by Myung Hee Cho, who also designed the everyday girl wear costumes) is dominated by a curved screen that is busy with Shawn Sagady’s projections. For the most part, the images flashing across the screen augment the action, but occasionally, as projections are wont to do, they take over the action and distract from the young women on stage. And nothing should distract from these wonderful performers.
As an ensemble, these women are absolutely delightful, and as individuals, delivering monologues, they are compelling and compassionate. In an early song, they long for connection and education appropriate to our modern world:
I want to touch you in real time
Not only find you on YouTube, YouTube
I want to walk next to you in the mountains
Not just poke you on Facebook, Facebook
Give me one thing, give me one thing,
That I can believe in that isn’t a brand name…
Give me that thing, give me one thing
You tell me how to be a girl today.
Then they settle in to a pattern of song/dance/monologue/group chat. Among the group chats, the most powerful is called “Hunger Blog” (although that’s a misnomer because it’s really girls around the world in a chat room). As these girls share their sometimes shocking views on how to be thin, one young woman in South Africa, who confesses to eating pizza and doughnuts, shares this: “Too fat. Beautiful is a country with gates around it. I will never be invited.”
The other group number that really registers is a freewheeling discussion of sex, including their (mis)perceptions and ongoing education. That discussion segues into a young woman talking about her unexpected pregnancy and her uncertainty about it. “It’s not a baby. It’s a maybe.”
Emily S. Grosland plays a young woman figuring out her sexuality in a monologue that says she’s not gay or straight. Because of the girl she has a crush on, she’s “Stephanied.” Then she sings a haunting song called “Falling” that changes the tone of the show from chipper and enthusiastic to much more serious.
Joaquina Kalukango delivers the show’s most powerful monologue as she details a young African woman’s kidnapping and sexual torture for two years in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The story is practically a one-act monologue in itself, and Kalukango delivers it so beautifully you don’t really want her to stop talking. She also shines in the tale of another African woman who refuses the ritual of female circumcision.
Sade Namei tells of a Middle Eastern girl’s reluctant plastic surgery and how much she misses her old nose. She says she’d rather have lived her life as a clown with the old nose than as a princess with the new one. Molly Carden goes into My So-Called Life territory as a high-school girl struggling with cliques. She wants to run with the popular girls, but her insecurity pulls at her and tells her she is “so utterly insignificant.” Corden shifts gears impressively as an Eastern European girl sold into sexual slavery who says over and over again, “I am a garbage pail.” She also says, chillingly, “I am a raped opening.”
Olivia Oguma mixes humor and pathos in her monologue about a Chinese sweatshop worker making Barbie heads. She understands the irony that the dolls she’s making with have better lives in their dream houses than she’ll ever have in her nightmare house. And Ashley Bryant struts and rhymes impressively in a hip-hop/poetry slam segment.
As the show swept into its girl-power conclusion, I found myself disappointed it was ending. I craved more stories. I wanted to see more interaction between the actors, not just monologues but scenes. I wasn’t ready to relinquish my time with this cast or with Ensler’s text. I know Ensler has more stories, and, in fact, I’d love to hear from Ensler herself. No one is more powerful in conveying her message than she is (just watch any of her interviews on YouTube). Emotional Creature is a positive force in the world – it’s putting something out there that makes you think and feel, but it can go further, push harder and share the stories of even more girls and women.
But Ensler and her troupe leave us with a powerfully upbeat manifesto for young women and the people who love and admire them:
We don’t accept your world
Your rules your wars
We don’t accept your cruelty and unkindness.
We don’t believe some need to suffer for others to survive.
When we stop caring about pleasing
And making everyone so incredibly happy
We got the Power.
And I savored this lyric – it’s what I was singing as I left the theater.
We are the girls who aren’t afraid to cook.
This is a whole new kitchen.
I interviewed Eve Ensler for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature continues through July 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.