You may have mistaken her for a shiny, plastic doll whose anatomically impossible proportions have bedeviled women for generations. A teenage girl slaving away on the Barbie assembly line in China has other ideas.
The 15-year-old believes Barbie has been exploited against her will. The toy yearns to free girls all over the world from starving to be like her, not to mention those who are paid starvation wages to make her. The sweatshop worker is one of the many unexpectedly endearing heroines we meet in "Emotional Creature," a new play based on the bestselling book of the same name.
Tony winner Eve Ensler, lionized for the social movement she spawned with the blockbuster hit "The Vagina Monologues," here turns her eye to the lives of girls she has encountered from the Congo to California.
Some are unforgettable, like the Chinese factory worker (played by the irrepressible Olivia Oguma) who devises a secret plan to embed her hopes and dreams into the dolls through telepathy, or as she puts it "head thoughts." She's so enamored of her liberation strategy that she catches her hand in the gears. Bleeding, fighting back the tears, she knows she will be punished for having injured the machine.
Not all of the stories in this spunky feminist stream-of-consciousness have such raw power in this world premiere at Berkeley Rep. Directed by Jo Bonney, the piece segues from sex trafficking and female genital mutilation to
But when this 90-minute call to arms connects, it's hard to resist. Ensler appeals to the child at the heart of all of us in a rallying cry to save the world, one girl at a time.
An ensemble of six young women leap from one monologue to the next. Some carve their characters with more care than others but all have a refreshing sense of exuberance, a genuine quality that's endlessly appealing in our cynical age of packaging and spin.
Ensler's gift is chronicling unthinkable travesties with insight and discipline. She doesn't wallow in the pain of the Congolese 17-year-old (the mesmerizing Joaquina Kalukango) who shares her rules for surviving life in a rape camp. Instead, the playwright targets the girl's steel, her strength of will and her capacity to endure.
It is also hard to shake off the horrifying memories of an Eastern European sex slave (Molly Garden). Raped and abused since she was 12 by everyone from family friends to the police, she considers herself little more than a receptacle for the ugliness of men's souls.
But Kalukango has such delicacy navigating the terrain of the terrible that her interludes are among the most indelible. The actress somehow finds the wonder and gentleness in the narrative of an African girl who has fled her home, her village, her life. Running from the cutter, she climbs to the top of a mountain to pray to the gods to let her keep her clitoris.
Indeed, some of the tales, such as the heartbreak of the American high schooler (Garden) ostracized from the cool table in the cafeteria, seem out of place with the darker themes explored. The opening number, in which the girls riff on which fate would be more damning (slut or fat? pregnant or dumped?), needs to be tightened, and some of the transitions feel awkward.
There's also a shout-out to women who have changed the world by refusing to submit to its indecencies, from environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill and Arab Spring activist Asmaa MahFouz to Anne Frank, that doesn't yet feel rooted in the body of the work.
But these are all merely quibbles when you consider that this is really more of a crusade than a play. Ensler is a firebrand as well as an artist. She is on a mission to launch a female revolution, and woe betides anyone foolish enough to stand in her way.
By Eve Ensler
Through: July 15
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $14.50-$73 (subject to change), 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org