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In Philadelphia They Call It A Split Knish

Last week, Boston witnessed the final performance of the triple surprise orgasm, stunningly rendered by a quivering Robin Givens. The last gasp played to a packed house as The Vagina Monologues ended an extended run at the Wilbur Theatre.
It was a moment that New England will not soon forget, a performance that officially ended Meg Ryan’s domination of the genre and gave women everywhere something to think about.
The show is exactly what you think it won’t dare to be: two hours of straight-up, no-holds-barred kootchie-talk. Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is a collection of stories, opinions, and random facts culled from interviews with hundreds of women about their attitudes regarding down-there.
Ms. Givens, who some of you may remember from television’s The Head of the Class, was joined onstage by Debi Mazar (The Insider) and the heartbreakingly talented Rosie Perez (Do The Right Thing, Fearless).
It was Ms. Perez who held the room in thrall. She seemed to speak directly to each person. And the audience responded, leaping from raucous laughter to rapt attention, unwilling to miss a single syllable. With her elastic accent and sparkling eyes, Rosie Perez convincingly portrayed women of vastly different ages and experiences with warmth and wit. Preparing for one particularly energetic piece, Ms. Perez slowly removed her sweater with a sly, “Get ready…” glance. The audience giggled in anticipation.
Robin Givens was so inspired by Ms. Perez’s performance that she halted the show after one of the monologues to express admiration and gratitude towards her co-star.
The show can be tough to watch. Some of the segments are hysterically funny. Others delicately render innocent discovery of human sexuality. Others depict the horrors of sexual abuse and calculated brutality, battered and broken women used as instruments of war and other power struggles.
The monologues play off of each other, counterbalancing opposing themes: fear and joy; violence and tenderness; shame and exuberance; uncertainty and enthusiastic enjoyment.
From the sometimes surprising audience participation, including loud startled gasps and other exclamations, it was clear that at least part of the power of The Vagina Monologues comes from the sheer foreignness of the subject matter.
Women just don’t talk about their down-theres. The great mystery of the female sex is, it seems, as much a mystery to women as it is to men. At any given moment a portion of the mostly female audience had their hands over their faces. Even the performers occasionally covered their faces in mock embarrassment, as if to say, “I can’t believe we’re really doing this.”
It might have been to hide the emotion that the show elicits: embarrassment caused by a particularly graphic image, or the shock of recognition. Often, it seemed that the audience was just amazed and delighted to hear and see their hidden fears, unspoken thoughts, and unshared joys aired so relentlessly, and with so much humor and humility. The story of Bob, the man who likes to see, really see women, prompted murmurs from the audience. (This story prompted one woman sitting in my row to say, “The guys should be taking notes.”)
Some women are more in touch than others. On the way into the theater I asked several people what they expected from the show. One proud woman exclaimed, “I expect to feel empowered and more in love with my vagina than ever.”
Men comprised an admirable ten percent of the audience. One young man walking out of the theater had just one thing to say: “Allrighty-then.”
A distinguished looking gray haired gentleman in a tweed coat found it very impressive and quite moving. “It could be edited better, but overall it was phenomenal,” he said. “It was poignant, sometimes tragic.”
Was he at all uncomfortable during the show?
“No, no. Not at all,” he said gravely.
“I’m a doctor.”

June 4, 2001
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