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"It never sounds like a word you want to say," observes a character early in Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues." "It's a totally ridiculous, unsexy word."

After more complaints, she repeats the word over and over, until that awkward middle part -- when the voice is forced to suddenly lurch forward and the mouth is made to drop open in imitation of a scared woodchuck -- really starts to annoy. "Va-JI-na. Va-JI-na. Va-JI-na."

It's not a particularly good battle-cry word, but Ensler has made it one. Her collections of phenomenal interviews with woman talking about their most intimate organ range from the riotous to the sad to the horrific, and, as reshaped by the playwright, compose a collective plea for a raised awareness of woman's biology and the violence that women are routinely subjected to around the world.

Sunday's performance of "Vagina Monologues," under the direction of Ellen Opiela in a Pandora's Box Theatre Company production, is part of the international "V-Day Worldwide Initiative." (The event was born in 1998 and has been successful in raising significant funds for charities working to stop violence against women.)

The 13 area performers (director Opiela among them) were so good -- so thoroughly engaged -- that it is difficult to pull out a few highlights. But among the many comic triumphs, nobody is apt to forget Loraine O'Donell Gray's run-through of all moans to which women are prone: the twisted-toe moan, the panting dog moan, the Grace Slick moan, the WASP moan (silence), the militant bisexual moan, even a yodel-moan. And that's only a partial list.

Kelli Bocock-Natale, looking very punk in black jeans and jacket, did a marvelous "My Angry Vagina." She assaulted such things as the unnecessary misery of the gynecological exam with its "Nazi steel stirrups and cold duck lips" and a flashlight used "like Nancy Drew working against gravity."

"The Flood," as expertly interpreted by Susan Toomey, presented an old woman's comical look at her lifelong sexual fears. Among its highlights is a dream sequence featuring a date with Burt Reynolds. His charms, it seems, cause the woman to pour forth her passion in the form of a vaginal flood, and soon Burt is up to his knees watching his buddy Dean Martin swim by in a tux.

Also a great delight was Eileen Dugan's character's discovery in "The Vagina Workshop" of her vagina. Previously, it was an organ, she said, that she knew only "through hearsay."

High marks must also go to Kate LoConti in a robust interpretation of a piece in which she "reclaims" a four-letter variant for vagina that family newspapers cannot yet print. (Women, don't complain: There was a day in these parts -- no joke -- when the word "snake" had to be printed "serpent," lest some evil thoughts be loosed).

The stories are interlaced by "vagina facts," some very grim. These were intended to ready the audience for almost impossible shifts from comic material to narratives of violence. Among the more disturbing pieces in the play is "My Vagina Was My Village," the story of a Bosnian woman who was brutally raped by soldiers. It was told in alternating voices, done with painfully poetic cadences by Pamela Rose Mangus and Lisa Vitrano.

Sometimes the audience wasn't quite ready for the dramatic changes in tone. Lydia Baines Al-Amin's beautifully executed "The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could" was ironic in the way devastating events were almost off-handedly told. With the comic absurdities that came before still ringing in their heads, some members of the audience let laughter slip out -- until a few beats later, when they realized this was the tale of a badly abused child.

This cavalier mix of all things and all moods in these stories, from the vicious to the giddily silly, is a problem with Ensler's play. Even with its serious purpose and laudable results in making the world aware of violence against women, "The Vagina Monologues" remains light theater.

It might have been better for the play (if not necessarily for its popularity) if the playwright had developed a sequence or two more, allowing us to reflect more deeply on real women rather than passing characters in what is essentially an entertaining theatrical revue.

Sad to say, a short review doesn't allow full mention of the stellar contributions of the other players: Anne Gayley, Lisa Ann Ludwig, Opiela, Joyce Stilson and Mary Kate O'Connell (who was one of the comic hits of the night). In the humble opinion of this reviewer, a mere male, they were terrific.



A One-Night performance by the Pandora's Box Theatre Company held Sunday in the Upper West Arts Center.

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