Tears were shed Friday night at the world premiere of Eve Ensler’s “Emotional Creature” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Ensler — Tony Award-winning playwright of the renown “The Vagina Monologues” — brings forth a new play based on her New York Times best-selling novel of the same name under the direction and musical direction of Jo Bonney, a Berkeley Rep regular, and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, respectively.
In many ways, “Emotional Creature” is comparable to “The Vagina Monologues” by tackling a similar range of feminist issues from sexual identity, physical self-consciousness and love to darker themes of genital mutilation, child labor and sex slavery. The structure will seem familiar as well. A diverse ensemble of six young women round out the cast as they deliver their own internal monologues. However, “Emotional Creature,” on the other hand, strays from the simplicity of “The Vagina Monologues” by incorporating the use of colorful backdrop projections, as well as song and dance under the direction of South African composer Lingenfelder and choreographer Luam.
The play opens with a musical number involving a naive and simple game of “Would You Rather?”. Six women leap and dance around on stage in their varying yet equally colorful and quirky attires, asking questions which begin innocently but grow in intensity to set the tone for the scenes that follow. This shift from moments of lightheartedness to those of great emotional depth is present from start to finish.
The inner thoughts of an American teenage girl, her dilemmas, her struggles to keep up with “mean girls” and the ever-changing social hierarchy of everyday high school life are conveyed through the first monologue. The character is beautifully crafted and expressed by the eccentric Molly Carden on an issue so prevalent in today’s society. In the scenes that follow, Ensler details lesbianism, “hunger blogs,” cosmetic surgery and sexual intercourse, all of which are controversial topics addressed and discussed nearly daily in the news and media.
As the play progresses, “Emotional Creature” triggers emotions of even greater magnitudes by testing limits and crossing boundaries, in true Eve Ensler fashion, with that dive deep into the lives and detail the internal battles of girls beyond the comfort of our nation. One of the most heart-wrenching and moving of the scenes was one carried out by the captivating Joaquina Kalukango, whose portrayal of a 17-year-old Congolese girl taken against her will to a rape camp, shook audience members to their core. Kalukango’s performance was phenomenal to say the least. From the look in her eyes to each movement she made as she spoke, Kalukango had the entire theater enthralled.
She then went on to play another girl who runs away from her village to escape the horrors of female mutilation, leaving the audience overwhelmed with emotion once more. This is followed by a particularly memorable scene which reflects the inner thoughts of an underpaid child worker in a Barbie assembly line in China. A monologue performed by the mesmerizing Olivia Oguma made one contemplate the irony in the fact that there are numerous girls starving to create the surreally proportioned doll, while others are starving to resemble her.
In order to smoothen the transitions from story to story, the cast performed vivacious musical numbers composed by Lingenfelder, an award-winning South African musical director, between each scene. While the melodies were incredibly zealous and upbeat, the lyrics to match lacked luster and meaning. The songs were confusing and couldn’t quite compare in terms of emotional depth to the acted scenes. Unlike in her previous works, Ensler experimented with musical interludes in “Emotional Creature” — seemingly as an aim to better connect with audience members of a younger generation. However, this attempt didn’t quite carry through, making the production seem almost immature despite the intensity of the topics.
All in all, each monologue was performed splendidly by the members of a brilliant ensemble, while the songs fell short in terms of purpose and continuity. Despite the musical additions’ attempts to enhance the fervor of the feminists’ messages, they only proved to distract the audience from the sentimental values and strength of the words and dialogue.
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