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Equal Time

A trio of male friends argues over a painting in Art; Eve Ensler asks, "What's in a name?"

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And then there was the night an irate science-fiction writer tried to clean my clock--in Washington, D.C., as I recall. He was telling me he was going to write a short story to demonstrate how missing-children milk cartons exploit those they claim to help. "So you're going to exploit them in kind by writing this story," I diplomatically responded.

The record will show that he punched me in the jaw. The record will also show that he only did it once.

So, yes: Now that you mention it, I have occasionally found myself over the years in an argument or two about aesthetics. Nothing that important, at the end of the day--little more, really, than an unusually energetic exchange of views. And when you come right down to it, we actually weren't fighting about art.

Neither, as it turns out, are Marc, Serge and Yvan, three opinionated Frenchmen who manage to turn a 90-minute argument about a painting into a dizzying, laugh-filled seminar in verbal self-defense (and offense). The play is Art, and this sparkling PlayMakers Repertory Company production, deftly cast and crisply directed, makes playwright Yasmina Reza's small-scale war of words crackle with electricity, before soberly calculating the high personal cost of what we might call extreme aesthetic rectitude.

At the play's opening, Serge, a dermatologist and would-be art collector, has just paid 200,000 francs (about $34,000) for an all-white canvas measuring 5 feet by 4 feet. The purchase infuriates his old friend and aesthetic mentor, Marc, the classicist. As the two stake out battle lines, each tries to draw a bewildered mutual friend, Yvan, to their side of the argument.

But don't let the high-tone premise and surface preoccupations of Art fool you. Underneath it all, its subject matter really isn't the rarefied disputes between the classical, the modern and the postmodern. At its center, Art is actually about how men would rather talk about anything under the sun except how they really feel, particularly toward one another. That's right: Scratch the surface and Art is--of all things--a guy play.

As Marc, Serge's elder mentor, Philip Davidson adds just a bit of warmth--and a bit more ruefulness--to the acerbic character typology we witnessed in December's far too chilled recital of PlayMaker's production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Meanwhile, Roy Dooley crafts Serge with a complex combination of eagerness, arrogance and pseudo-intellect; a young man trapped between the desire to please and the need to be respected as a man in his own right. Kenneth P. Strong provides comic relief as a hapless Yvan repeatedly caught in the others' near-Oedipal crossfire.

As director Ted Shaffner escalates affairs, Serge and Marc devote their energies to erecting absurdly refined but fundamentally conflicting positions of taste. Once that dubious architecture is complete, each begins determining which friendships are worth sacrificing on it. It's one part ARTforum magazine, one part Lord of the Flies, with a little Donald Barthelme and Walt Kelly thrown in to season.

Ungracious conversation ensues, in short. Dry wit makes good kindling, and indoor fireworks, deployed at point-blank range, continue until all parties prove their ability to injure themselves and one another. The result partakes as much of the golden age of the Algonquin as it does a messy pre-school playground brawl: good fun (and an apparent rite of passage), until all those pointed barbs nearly put an eye or two out.

What this motley threesome does once they've managed to push their friendships to the brink wryly demonstrates the degrees to which men will be boys, even at the apogee of taste. It's an argument about art--and something else entirely. I've been in one or two of those myself.

Of course, Eve Ensler's right: Names are important, particularly when it comes to sexual nomenclature, and the choices the English language presents us are few and far from satisfactory.

"Let's just start with the word 'vagina,'" she writes. "It sounds like an infection at best. Maybe a medical instrument: 'Hurry, Nurse, bring me the vagina.' Doesn't matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say. It's a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word."

And it's not the only one: Somehow, you just know that terms like "vagina" and "penis" couldn't have been invented by anyone who actually liked either of them very much.

Talk about aesthetic non-starters. What mediocre wordsmith left behind such blighted forms in which to clothe the human body? What lexical disaster actually left all of us, in the words of Adrienne Rich, speaking the oppressor's language?

Those are some of the questions that start The Vagina Monologues, the surprising, irreverent and sobering chronicle of Ensler's interviews with over 200 women on the subject of their sex organs. While the professional touring version closed a six-night sold-out stand at the A. J. Fletcher Opera Theater on Sunday, regional audiences have at least three opportunities to see it in the coming months. Separate student productions are slated around Valentine's Day at Meredith College and UNC-Chapel Hill, benefits for Ensler's "V-Day" fund to fight female war atrocities, genital mutilation and other forms of abuse. After that, the touring production returns to Raleigh for an encore engagement, July 2-7.

The evening began with the conspiratorial glee of a girls' night out, as a voice in the darkness teased, "I'll bet you're worried." Then monologists Amy J. Carle, Kim Coles and Michele Shay convened a refreshing symposium, impersonating a gallery of women in a series of conversations ranging from the whimsical to the ghastly.

A proper British woman relates with amazement the discovery of her own vagina in middle-age: "It was even better than the Grand Canyon," she says. After an incident with a clueless teenage boy, a woman from Queens shuts off her sexuality entirely, in a poignant monologue called "The Flood." Years later, she compares her vagina to the damp, clammy cellar of a house, and concludes, "you don't wanna go down there. Trust me. You'd get sick."

This testimony was interspersed with a revealing panoply of short answers to a set of improbable questions. If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear? Glasses? A male tuxedo? Armani only? Or lace and combat boots, as one respondent answered? And if it could talk, what would it say? Slow down, think again, or (more plaintively) remember me?

Giving the body voice like this combines genuinely mischievous fun with just as genuine consciousness-raising. And even though by my estimate the audience was 90 percent women, 10 percent men, Ensler's convocation is anything but an exercise in gratuitous male-bashing. Actually, men come off pretty well. It's obvious throughout that Ensler's true target is the silence in our language, the malformed preconceptions, the absence in our discourse on the topic of our sexuality, and what happens to it once violence is introduced.

The evening's most harrowing testimony comes from a Bosnian woman who survived the purges of the early 1990s. "My vagina was my hometown," she begins, "a live, wet water village." Her subsequent account of what happens to them both shakes us to the marrow. We are reminded that between 20,000 and 70,000 women were raped in the Bosnian conflict in 1993. Then we are reminded that 700,000 women are raped every year in this country, "even though in theory we are not at war."

Making such voices public is a humane and profoundly healing act. It's also a compelling evening of theater for us all, one that shouldn't be missed. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com

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