By FRANCIS TILL



The Vagina Monologues: Three barefoot actors, 21 scenes, at least 100 characters, 32 orgasms, and one ubiquitous anatomical feature (with about a thousand names).



First, the play is so well and deeply written that it deserves extraordinarily talented actors and the kind of insightful, transparent direction provided by Oliver Driver in this production. Because it is part-tract, it sometimes needs them.



It gets them here.

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In the beginning, the stage lights go up before the house lights go down, putting us all in common space. We are confronted with three of New Zealand's finest actresses in street clothes, sitting in unremarkable chairs, looking out at the audience. There is a very long silence.



"I bet you're worried," says one.



The house erupts in laughter because, yes, we were. We shouldn't have been.



Brilliantly conceived and realised characters begin tumbling out from that first moment, sometimes in isolation, often interacting, making exotic and challenging issues one might have thought were settled with the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves. They weren't.



In one scene, the women toss dozens of living euphemisms (pooki, Gladys Siegelman, toadie) across the stage at one another in a ribald contest - in another, they discuss what their vaginas might wear, were they to dress up (a beret, a pinafore).



But it is the core monologues - the dozen or so stories told under solitary spotlights - that are the main focus here.



Danielle Cormack and Madeleine Sami were made for these parts - so much so, it almost seems the roles were written for them. Each monologue is a vignette and each vignette is a life, complete and distinct from any of the others, with one exception: the vagina.



Cormack's rendition of a very old virgin talking reluctantly about her "down theres" is a performance that puts even the text in shadow, and the repertoire of orgasms she displays as "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy" elevates the moan from punctuation to language.



Sami's tough-kid encounter with a seductive secretary is a production of its own, as well, and she takes the house away during a scene called "Reclaiming C-" - to the point that the audience not only chants her power word, but sings it, happily.



If Lucy Lawless came third in the trio, it was not by much. Yes, she can act. No, there was not a single trace of Xena. She handled the lighter bits with obvious relish, and when she took on the character of a Bosnian woman who had been raped with a rifle, the death on her face, the emptiness of her voice, were shattering.



When author Eve Ensler first started performing the 80-90 minute Vagina Monologues off-Broadway in 1996, she did it solo. She still does performances that way sometimes - in a special Valentine's Day documentary/performance on HBO that debuted in America last week, for example.



But the play is more often (and perhaps more rationally) performed by a trio, as here with Cormack, Sami and Lawless, who morph from one persona to the next as they live out the stories Ensler developed out of interviews with more than 200 women about, well, their vaginas.



Glenn Close has famously undertaken performances of this play, as have such wildly diverse women as Winona Ryder, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Calista Flockhart, Cate Blanchett, Gillian Anderson, Kate Winslet and Ruby Wax.



Overall, the play is hugely comic even though some horrifying material surfaces now and again - the monologues are interspersed with painfully explicit asides describing the ongoing practice of female circumcision, for example.



In the end, though, those moments prove critical to the dramatic structure, fitting within the weave of the play as a series of hard, tight knots.



Structurally, the play can be seen as a kind of rolling triptych, the central monologues leavened by frothy dialogues on one side and underpinned by recitations of appalling fact on the other.