Jonna’s Body, Please Hold. A Cancerous Dark Comedy
Reviewed By: Alysa Cummings
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: October 13, 2008
Last Thursday night, me and four of my breast cancer support group buddies entered the surreal world of Jonna’s Body – a place where an operator named Pearl works an old fashioned switchboard to juggle phone calls from various complaining body parts: Sgt. Coif valiantly disciplines his unruly, frizzy troops, uptight Upper Back could really use a yoga class to unwind, Bowel is backed up and has product to move and the talkative pair of boobs Uta and Ula have been stuck in Jonna’s brassiere way too long. Such is life in Jonna’s Body.
Within just a few short minutes of the film’s opening lines (“Jonna’s Body, where we put the art in artery”), the five of us were all engaged, buying into the entire comic premise. Before long, when Cancer arrived in the guise of hostile foreigners speaking with exotic accents, we were totally hooked, enjoying the melodrama and special effects in the show.
I am fond of saying that, yes, believe it or not, there are jokes in CancerLand, but it’s cancer survivors who are the only ones qualified to tell them. Actress Jonna Tamases has earned that right, (and then some), as a three time cancer survivor.
I first heard about Jonna’s work when I read the Fall 2008 issue of Women & Cancer. An article described Jonna’s recovery from Stage II Hodgkins’s Lymphoma followed by a relapse one year later. It would be a decade before cancer appeared in her life again, this time as ductal carcinoma in situ. At this point, Jonna decided to treat her breast cancer by undergoing a bilateral mastectomy. (Years later, Jonna transformed her cancer experience into art by writing and performing Jonna’s Body as a one woman show).
The film version follows Jonna as she undergoes endless testing followed by radiation and multiple rounds of chemotherapy. The seriousness of cancer treatment is lightened by physical comedy and double entendres. Only in Jonna’s Body could a cancer survivor undergoing treatment wrestle with toxic side effects and appearance demons, (“I can’t look at myself in the mirror anymore,”) followed by Sgt. Coif loudly admonishing his troops to “fall out!” In the Behind the Scenes feature of the DVD, Tamases defends tackling such a heavy subject as cancer with humor. “In the face of tragedy, what else can we do but laugh?”
Spoiler alert: the radiation and chemotherapy work to kill Jonna’s cancer. We see radiation make the foreigners sweat up a storm. And we all cheered in the audience like little kids because the bad guys really had it coming to them.
Now cancer free, Jonna thanks her body (right now we’re okay), and decides to join the circus where she meets and marries the man (a fellow clown) of her dreams. It’s a feel good, live-happily-ever-after ending. And before the credits roll, Jonna, dressed in clown makeup, celebrates her good fortune with a delightful dance. It’s such a marvelous catharsis after so much medical trauma that clearly underscores her message to cancer survivors everywhere: Life! We get to be! How great is that?
Great indeed. I polled my fellow cancer survivors at the end of the movie and we all agreed wholeheartedly, with big smiles on our faces: we love Jonna Tamases, and her body too.