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If you’re going to build a whole evening around a topic that even presidential cigar jokes approach euphemistically, you’d better be pretty accomplished at putting people at ease.

Eve Ensler is accomplished. And then some. Had to be, or she’d never even have been able to gather the material for The Vagina Monologues, her achingly funny solo show at Studio Theatre.

One of the first things Ensler does, actually—just to break the ice—is articulate a few of the monikers she’s heard women use for their own vaginas. “Coochi snorcher” is among the more colorful in a list that ranges from common vulgarisms to regional favorites like “split knish” (evidently popular in Philly). Perhaps the salient thing to be said for the evening is that by the time Ensler finishes telling the stories that go with these terms, not one of them sounds remotely dismissive.

Call her a raconteur with a mission, and note that while her chosen topic is not the usual stuff of polite conversation, the places she heads with her meditations on what Victorians referred to as a woman’s “nether regions” tend to be decidedly sweet. They’re unpredictable, yes—as when she speaks of a man who could read vaginas the way most psychics read palms—but for the most part, they’re nonthreatening even to folks who, like me, don’t have coochi snorchers of our own.

Partly this is because Ensler’s monologues—which she delivers from a bar stool at center stage, with occasional glances at notes on file cards—are based on some 200 interviews with women who were, themselves, initially reluctant to talk about their bodies. The first story Ensler recounts—of a 72-year-old woman who was humiliated by a date in 1953 and who shut down her sexuality thereafter—is instructive. “I can’t talk about this,” the woman begins. But she does. And in her halting defensiveness, you hear the history of a social stigma that can’t help crippling self-esteem and limiting self-worth.

And that has no male equivalent. Imagine, if you will, a show called The Penis Monologues. There’d be one joke—about size—with variations. Cockiness—you should pardon the expression—would reign supreme.

Ensler’s work is varied enough that it can fill 85 minutes without descending into coarseness, repeating points, or resorting to gimmickry. The performer does rely a trifle overmuch on lists—those vaginal nicknames, for example—but has found mostly clever ways to disguise them. Take the catalogue of moans that she turns quasi-symphonic by orchestrating gentle murmurs and wall-piercing wails into rhythmic crescendos and accelerandos. It’s lovemaking and it’s music at the same time.

That’s something you might also say about a startlingly poetic dissertation Ensler has crafted around the word “cunt.” Using the sounds of other words, delivered with rhapsodic heat and a troubadour’s passion, she takes a good stab at reclaiming a term most patrons will have regarded exclusively as an insult.

All of which speaks to the evening’s chief strength: Ensler may or may not be an accomplished actress—it’s hard to tell in an evening that mostly has her chatting conversationally at a microphone—but she is definitely a canny molder of theatrical images. Whether chronicling the birth of her adopted son’s daughter, conducting a guided tour of Betty Dodson’s Vagina Workshops, or detailing the horrors visited on a Bosnian rape victim, Ensler explores the contours of stagecraft in ways that go well beyond the stand-up conventions her show seems to be mining.

Not that she’s particularly showy. Sitting primly in black evening gown and Cleopatra ‘do at center stage, she rarely acknowledges her surroundings except when placing note cards on a table at her side or sipping water from a plastic bottle. Lighting designer Robert Books washes the space with waves of blue or amber to delineate mood, but otherwise, the performer is entirely on her own. Unlike monologuist Sara Felder, who’s currently across 14th Street at Woolly Mammoth, she uses no props or set pieces. When Ensler juggles, it’s words that go flying, not balls or sabers.

But if her method is spare, her observations tend to be so neatly crafted that they strike the ear in offbeat, deftly nuanced ways. Enough so that lines that sound merely amusing when quoted out of context—a 6-year-old girl’s announcement, for instance, that her vagina smells “like snowflakes”—are met as often with contented (or even awestruck) sighs in the theater as with laughter.

Ensler’s work is becoming increasingly celebrated of late, in large part because of her activism on women’s issues. In February, a Manhattan benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues, performed by such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close, and Gloria Steinem, raised a small fortune to combat violence against women. Ensler’s other work has dealt with such issues as disarmament, war refugees, and the homeless, always from a feminist perspective.

For the record, at the matinee I attended, the crowd was largely, but by no means exclusively, female, and the first standees in what became a general standing ovation were male.

Vagina envy, anyone?CP