The Empower Ring

The two world premieres opening and closing last week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre  turn out to be near-perfect companion pieces to each other. On the older, smaller Thrust Stage, Dael Orlandersmith’s solo show Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, which closed Sunday, offered a series of grim portraits of abused young boys and the men they become. Opening last Friday next door on the spacious Roda Stage was the latest play by Eve Ensler, author of the ubiquitous Vagina Monologues.  This one, Emotional Creature, is an ensemble piece for six young women exploring the plight of teenage girls all over the world, from American girls desperate to fit in with the in crowd to African girls taken as sex slaves by soldiers in the Congo, to girls making American consumer products in Chinese sweat shops.  It’s an odd mix of powerful, gut-wrenching monologues and peppy inspirational songs like something out of Up with People or a children’s TV program.

Sade Namei in Emotional Creature. Photo courtesy of

Myung Hee Cho’s set accentuates the impression of the show as infotainment. It’s just a series of curved platforms dominated by a huge curved screen that shows a preshow slide show juxtaposing photos of happy teenage girls with disturbing statistics about body image and economic inequality. During the show Shawn Sagady’s video projections provide very literal interpretations of song lyrics and some brutally effective scene-setting for some of the speeches.

The show’s only 90 minutes without intermission, but at first it looks like it’s going to be a long night. The show starts with the multiethnic cast playing a giggly game of “Would You Rather”: “Would you rather be called a slut or fat?” “Would you rather get pregnant accidentally or get dumped.” The somewhat forced air of merriment continues into the opening musical number about being a girl in the world today to a pounding electronic beat by music director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. “I want to touch you in real time,” the girls sing, “not just find you on YouTube.”

The cast of Emotional Creature. Photo courtesy of

The problem with these happy, shiny moments of girl-power empowerment is that they feel very artificial, very much like an older generation trying to speak to the youth of today in their lingo, and it really doesn’t work very well. But just as soon as it feels like this show may be much better suited for a school auditorium than a regional theatre, the first of the personal narratives starts, and it’s incredibly gripping. The video background shifts to a bank of school lockers, and Molly Carden becomes a teenage girl who’s twisting herself into knots trying to get the popular girls to accept her, struggling to keep up with what shoes are in vogue this week and who’s okay to be nice to and who isn’t. Her angst and desperation is just heartrending.

In fact, most of the monologues pack a powerful punch, and every actor in the six-person cast is outstanding. Sade Namei has a marvelously funny and sad monologue as a girl who misses her nose. She used to be a funny girl with a funny nose, large and with a lot of character, until her parents made her get a nose job, and now she’s a blandly pretty girl who thinks pretty girls are boring. Carden has a chilling speech as a Russian teenager held captive in a prostitution ring, and Joaquina Kaukango gives a fierce and devastating tour de force as a Congolese girl kidnapped and kept in sex slavery for two years. Kaukango also has a beautifully touching scene as an African runaway fleeing forced female circumcision, and Olivia Oguma does a bittersweet and often hilarious bit as an illiterate Chinese factory worker making Barbie heads and sending psychic messages out to the world through “head send.” “Barbie is not who you think she is,” she asserts. “She is actually very messy and surprisingly loud. She is so much smarter than they will allow her to be.”

Olivia Oguma in Emotional Creature. Photo courtesy of

A few of the monologues aren’t quite as strongly written as the others. The androgynously dressed Emily S. Grosland recounts a floridly poetic fantasy of teen suicide to spite her controlling parents.  Ashley Bryant is given a slam poetry-style speech about the epithets people use to keep girls down that, while overtly empowering, ultimately isn’t all that interesting or well written, but it becomes charming when the others join in talking about what their short skirts (which they’re not actually wearing) do not mean. “My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.”

The ensemble bits are also entertaining, even if they don’t quite have the same heft. In one scene they play anorexic girls of all nations chatting on a “hunger blog.” In another they cluster together chatting about being self-conscious about asking a guy to wear a condom.

Aside from the elaborate audiovisual accompaniment, director Jo Bonney’s staging keeps things simple, very much like a standard musical revue. While one speaks, the others stand or sit around and watch, sometimes cheering her on. The tension between the heavy subject matter of the monologues and the go-get-em girl power of the songs is so great that it’s tempting to think that this whole musical thing just isn’t working out. It seems like Ensler felt like something needed to lighten the mood between the sobering stories, but the songs are far too light and fluffy not to be terribly jarring.  And not just the upbeat ones, either: Grosland gets a particularly sappy song about falling desperately in love that’s far too generic to add much to the discussion.

Still, it’s not so simple as “stories good, songs bad.” There’s a stomping, clapping, jubilant dance paying homage to uncompromising “refusers” from Joan of Arc and Anne Frank to Angela Davis and Julia Butterfly Hill, and it’s honestly inspiring in its jubilance. But then it’s followed by an insipid, very ’70s-style title song celebrating being an “emotional creature,” with a sparkly valentine heart in the background.

Ensler’s 1996 play The Vagina Monologues has become a movement unto itself. As part of a concerted “V-Day” campaign to stop violence against women, countless productions take place every year in theaters, high schools and community centers across the world, with proceeds going to women’s shelters and anti-domestic-violence organizations. Emotional Creature seems very much designed to go viral in the same way, with a more general message about empowering teenage girls and sharing their struggles around the world. The problem is that at this point it feels as much like a public service announcement as a play, as if Ensler was more focused on its target audience and positive message than on the play as a cohesive work unto itself. There’s plenty of great material in here, but at this point it still feels like a jumble. Ensler had best to get the play in order first before she tries to make this one a movement, as important as that movement and message may be.

Emotional Creature
Through July 15
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #60 of 2012, attended June 22.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment