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The Good Body 

The World Health Organization just released a report on domestic violence, with this startling conclusion: A woman is safer on the streets than she is in the home. In Ethiopia, for instance, 71 percent of women interviewed have been the victim of violence from a live-in partner. (In America, the figure is 25 percent.) Even more distressingly, significant percentages of women interviewed in all countries saw nothing wrong with a husband beating his wife.

There's not enough newsprint to examine the ramifications of these statistics, but for purposes of this review let's talk about one: What happens when you're raised in a world where something as fundamental as gender stamps you as a victim for the rest of your life?

Eve Ensler, playwright of The Vagina Monologues, examines the answer in The Good Body, now receiving its Pittsburgh premiere at City Theatre.

According to Ensler, from the moment of birth women are taught, implicitly and explicitly, that something is "bad" about them. And in developed countries, at least, that judgment manifests itself in body image. Women spend the whole of their lives slimming, fasting, nipping, tucking, purging, binging, reducing, augmenting, plucking, waxing, lopping off and adding on to their bodies. Not insignificantly, much of that process involves a vast array of commercial products, periodicals and expensive surgery.

In The Good Body, we follow the playwright on a real-life around-the-world journey as she explores her own relationship with her stomach. It may be age-appropriately round, but for Ensler it has become both the repository and symbol of her conflicted feelings.

Three actresses make up the cast; one plays Eve and the other two play some of the women she meets on her trek. She begins in America, fittingly starting with Helen Gurley Brown, then moving to a children's fat camp, a plastic surgeon and a Weight Watchers meeting, among other visits. In these segments, Ensler examines the media-driven consumerist industry that feeds on and profits from the American woman's need to achieve physical perfection -- in hopes of muffling the battle below the surface.

She then stops in South America, Italy, Africa, India and, finally, Afghanistan. Here we see misogyny in full, hideous bloom as we meet women living under the Taliban. (When Ronald Reagan called the mujahideen -- some of whom went on to form the Taliban -- the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers," do you think he was maybe making a sly point about the essential sexism of America?) And it is here, in the show's most moving moment, that Ensler finally makes peace with herself.

You'd never guess, from all of that, that The Good Body is also one of the funniest plays I've seen in a long time. Thanks to Ensler's always smart and knowing writing and Tracy Brigden's direction -- a model of laser-like comedic precision -- this play is just about as entertaining as any play can get. And the chocolate sauce on this already glorious sundae is the mammoth achievement of this towering ensemble. Brigitte Viellieu-Davis, Laurie Klatscher and Erica Bradshaw work the stage, this play and the audience like nobody's business.

I never say this about a show, but I wish it had gone on forever.

The Good Body continues through Oct. 29. City Theater at 13th and Bingham streets, South Side. 412-431-CITY.

Homeless: The Musical

If the Duquesne Red Masquers want to take out an ad for their latest production, I'm happy to supply the pull quote:

"Homeless: The Musical is the silliest, goofiest, wackiest musical about the homeless that you'll ever see! I loved it!" --T. Hoover, Pittsburgh City Paper.

I don't know which made me laugh more: the kick-line of dead crack whores, or the stirring love ballad "You're My Pre-Operative Transsexual Lover."

Homeless, with book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond and music by Suzanne Polak, is a barrage of theatrical insanity hurtling at you at a hundred miles an hour. Some of it doesn't work, but most of it does -- and when it does, it goes through the roof.

Our heroes, Kevin and Jesse, are MBAs who are unable to find jobs and who fall into an underworld of beggars and panhandlers. Meanwhile, a villainous senator and an evil media mogul are hatching a nefarious plan to cover the country with big-box stores, carbon-copy strip malls and vast horizons of franchise outlets.

The show is a cockeyed pairing of The Cradle Will Rock and Urinetown: The Musical and, since those are two of my favorites, that's a very good thing. Like Cradle, Homeless is a fiery piece of political-cartoon agitprop. As with Urinetown, the entire show is, in a very postmodern way, all about itself and the audience.

John E. Lane, Jr., directs this large and extremely enthusiastic student cast with the same energy and boundless appeal as the script. To point out that the talent pool varies greatly misses the whole point: This production is all about the collective power of this exceptionally fearless cast.

It's true that the material is sophomoric in places, and in subsequent drafts Dimond will need to clear away large patches that smother the comedy. But none of that dims the funny and fresh lunacy of Homeless: The Musical.

A kick-line of dead crack whores? You know you ain't never seen that before.

Homeless: The Musical continues through Sat., Oct. 21. Peter Mills Auditorium, Rockwell Hall, Duquesne University campus, Uptown. 412-396-6215.

Incorruptible

I don't want you to think, from the above two notices, that the life of the reviewer is a non-stop whirligig of laughter. Sometimes it's a dank and dismal affair, as South Park Theatre's production of Incorruptible proves.

This farce by Michael Hollinger, about amoral monks selling unholy bones as holy relics, should be a high-energy bit of madcap. Not here. It may have something to do with the fact that one of the lead actors doesn't know his lines. Or it may be that even those who do know their lines don't know that they're in a comedy, and thus spent a whole lot of time "acting" the subtext with fixed determination. And the very interesting thing about Incorruptible is that when you take away the humor, the play becomes glum and distasteful -- definitely something neither Hollinger nor I wants.

Incorruptible continues through Oct. 29. South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive and Brownsville Road, South Park. 412-831-8552.

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