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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Keeping Vagina Fresh

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Milwaukee is awash in Vagina this spring. UW-Milwaukee staged a production of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues last month, the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center (MGAC) has its version of the Monologues coming up March 13-15, and Marquette students will be presenting their own Vagina show in the next month or so. After several years without a major production of The Vagina Monologues in Milwaukee, what gives?

I remember when I first saw The Vagina Monologues in Boston years ago, performed by Eve Ensler herself to a sold-out crowd in the historic Wang Theatre. At the time, the Monologues were only a couple of years old, still buzzed-about and shocking. We didn't know what to expect, and hearing the raw words of so many women brought to life in a darkened theater seemed revolutionary.

Last year was the 10th anniversary of The Vagina Monologues, and when I attend a performance now, it feels like visiting an old friend. I have witnessed at least 10 college and community performances of the piece in the past several years. Vagina seems to be second in longevity only to Cats. I'm happy, and also kind of surprised, that it continues to be relevant to both performers and audience members. To get an idea of why, I sat in on a dress rehearsal of the MGAC production and talked to the producers and cast members.

The cast ranges in age from early 20s to 50s, and includes people who have never done any kind of theater before, actresses who have been in Off-Broadway productions, and every amount of experience in between. Co-director Alan Piotrowicz says that he intentionally advertised auditions outside of the typical arts channels in order to truly make this a community production.

Jennie Jones, who performs the monologue "Reclaiming Cunt" (and does an awesome job of it), says, "I've always wanted to be in The Vagina Monologues, ever since I first saw it on HBO when I was 14."

Kristie Coryell, who performs the monologue "The Flood," agrees. "It's iconic," she says. "As an actress, I felt I had to be in this production."

Karlie Driscoll takes on "My Vagina Was My Village," a particularly poignant piece about sexual assault. "The VaginaMonologues is a great thing to do to bring attention to sexual violence, because it brings the message home while also letting people laugh [at some of the less serious bits]," she says.

Says Coryell, "I've been raped. My personal experiences mean that it's that much more important to me to be in the show."

Driscoll also points out that the show doesn't just raise awareness, but also takes action by donating all proceeds from ticket sales to local organizations that provide violence prevention and treatment services.

Valery Meyer is part of the ensemble piece "They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy," which was added to the Monologues in 2004 to address the experiences of transgender women. Meyer says she joined the cast "because transgender is not often thought of when talking about violence against women. Eve specifically created a monologue for transgender women that allows us to be spotlighted as real people."

Piotrowicz and Alicia Wahl, the stage manager and producer, think it's an especially interesting time, both locally and globally, to put on The Vagina Monologues. "It's the 11th anniversary of the Monologues," Piotrowicz says, "but we're still seeing violence in the media."

New this year is a monologue detailing Ensler's trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and for the first time each community production of The Vagina Monologues around the world is being asked to donate 10% of its profits to a campaign to end systemic sexual violence against women and girls in the DRC, in addition to a donation to local groups.

I didn't get to watch the entire rehearsal, but from what I saw, Milwaukee is in for a great show. Piotrowicz and his co-director, Cheryl Ann Lisowski, have eschewed the traditional bare-bones set used by most productions of the Monologues and instead have created a cozy, intimate stage with plush pink and red furniture that puts the actresses on the same level with the audience. The red back wall of the MGAC takes on a whole new meaning in this context, and the set is coincidentally enhanced by MGAC's new exhibit of Suzanne Stacy's abstract portraits of female nudes that hang behind the performers.

The cast is clearly having a fabulous time, cheering each other on (especially during Kate Sherry's amazing performance of "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy"). No matter how many times The Vagina Monologues is performed across the country, each ensemble will make it their own and take it from a global movement down to the grassroots level.

Catch the MGAC production of The Vagina Monologues on March 13 & 14 at 8 p.m. or March 15 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15/$10 for seniors or students. More information about this production and others can be found at www.vday.org.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them tolaura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns theTool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.