by Richard Dodds
It was in 1971 that Helen Reddy first sang the song lyrics that proclaimed, "I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore." It's a bit sad then that Eve Ensler sees the need to conclude Emotional Creature with a song that doesn't move much beyond the starter female-empowerment sentiments expressed all those many years ago. "We got the power," insists the cast of six young women after presenting a series of vignettes that mostly state the opposite.
Ensler helped move the world with The Vagina Monologues by placing an unmentionable on a pedestal. But Emotional Creature, having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, fosters a retrograde instructional impression that is part grownup theater and part after-school special. It is a relief, though, that the show itself is not as sternly didactic as the pre-show projected statements outlining the continuing wrongs done to half the world's population, from female circumcision to body issues. Did you know that, according to one survey, most girls would rather have an arm amputated than be considered fat?
That body issues should be a recurring topic is ironic because the cast members are uniformly trim. And yet there are scenes in which Ensler can address this and other trodden topics of inequality with fresh imagination. One is a monologue by a Chinese girl who works in a factory that manufactures the heads for Barbie dolls. She imagines that if a young girl somewhere else in the world holds a Barbie to her ear, like a seashell, she will hear its maker's dreams.
Some of the monologues go to far grimmer places, emphasizing the importance of the issues behind them but not often further illuminating them. An African girl describes her two years as a sexual slave of a military official with the attendant horrors you'd expect, and another African girl prays to God that her family will not enforce on her the custom of genital mutilation. It's hard to know what to make of the scene set to music with the cast alternately extoling the liberation of wearing short skirts and warning away anyone who thinks they are a sexual invitation. Some scenes just ring false, like the girl's lament about no longer being the class clown after a parentally imposed nose job.
The accompanying music composed by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder has a catchy pop-music vibe, which is matched by Ensler's lyrics and Luam's choreography. Ashley Bryant, Molly Carden, Emily S. Grosland, Joaquina Kalukango, Sade Namei, and Olivia Oguma compose the energetic and appealing cast directed by Jo Bonney.
The most intriguing part of the production is the Cinerama-style hi-def screen that encompasses the stage in Shawn Sagady's projection design. The effect is so realistic that when wafting drapes are projected, you might easily think you are looking at actual cloth. But it can also be a distraction. The slowly morphing close-ups of sinister male faces are more interesting than the particular scene of victimization being played out in front of it. I remember the faces, but not the gender crimes they are meant to symbolize.
Emotional Creature will run at Berkeley Rep through July 15. Tickets are $14.50-$73. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.