Aurora Theatre Company
“He wrote our history not for us, for himself,” eulogizes the first wife of Ernest Hemingway as Wife 2 and Wife 3 nod in agreement. In Wives – Jacklyn Backhaus’ time-traveling, boundary-breaking script packed with playful yet powerful punches aimed at patriarchally told history – women once married to the rich and famous rise to the fore to claim their side of the story.
From Hemingway’s funeral in the 1961 Idaho countryside to the Loire Valley chateau of sixteenth century’s King Henri II to the harem of Maharaja Madho Singh II in 1920’s India, wives and lovers of these historical giants confront each other as rivals with wit and witchery and soon surprise themselves as they transform from foes to friends to family. Aurora Theatre Company presents the ninety-minute, West Coast premiere of this whirlwind of comic truth-telling, ending with a fourth, present-day act where the playwright herself delves as a college sophomore into her own untold history to discover, “Everything about you is right.”
Jasmine Sharma, Rebecca Schweitzer and Anisha Jagannathan play respectively Wife 1, Wife 2, and Wife 3, shifting with incredible speed their personas, accents, demeanors, and roles as Director Lavina Jadhwani deftly directs them seamlessly and with barely a pause from one act to the next. Their total transfigurations are greatly facilitated by the striking, time-accurate costumes designed by Courtney Flores and by the simple but quickly adaptable scenic design by Mikko Uesugi. Kudos for their comic and character-defining verbal flourishes goes to Lisa Anne Porter as dialect coach, with the playwright’s modern-day words and phrases being delivered with timbre and cadence appropriate to the different times, places, and stations in life.
The first three acts pit against each other the women most closely connected in love and lust to a man whose name and story is one well-recorded for all still to know. In the French chateau of King Henri II, his wife and mistress fight over who can sit in a chair favored by the King. With airs of privilege and superiority floating about in her every more, Queen Catherine (Jasmine Sharma) snarls with vehemence and with eyes that could kill to the devilishly irreverent paramour of the King, Diane (Anisha Jagannathan), “I will gut you before you sit in that chair.” After putting a hex on the King’s jousting spear because he insists on tying Diane’s ribbon on it (and not that of his wife), the Queen later ensures that Diane cannot see the dying King who has been fatally injured in his tournament. Earlier verbal barbs between the two now escalate into a holy war as the Queen seeks to deny Diane the chateau that the King’s will has promised her.
But then something happens. The disrespectful Diane who has shown no fear or care of the Queen’s position suddenly says, “Here’s how the story usually goes … We’re supposed to hate each other … What if …”. And in that ‘what if,’ new possibilities suddenly appear – alternatives not dictated by the way men would later recount such a relationship between the King’s wife and his lover. While the Queen at first objects that “Harmony is never more interesting than war,” Diane reminds her that is how it is in a man’s world; but now that she is Queen without King, what if?
And such is the kind of ah-ha’s both these two rivals and the female adversaries in subsequent scenes and stories surprisingly find themselves having. Women whose subsequent histories will recount that they were supposed to hate each other begin to discover new ways of seeing each other as allies.
As Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley (Jasmine Sharma), reminds his other widows that to those who will later tell their stories, “We’re all just women, complacent women, sidekicks to a horrible monument; we’re nobody.” In each of the three first acts, the women are those who men (i.e., historians, authors, storytellers, etc.) have ensured that we today either have no knowledge or memory of them or we only see them in relationship to the famous men themselves. Jaclyn Backhaus decides to give their lives a new twist and storyline, one with a healthy bit of feminine manifesto threaded into its redone seams.
And she does so injecting big doses of satire and even silliness along the way, making the medicine of her message go down a lot easier. Much of that humor comes not only in the modern-day language these women of other eras use, but especially in a couple of bizarre characters that crop up as played by Rebecca Schweitzer. In the French court, she is a comically expressive Cook whom we first meet plucking feathers from a chicken and giving us a sixteenth-century version of a Food Network hit show on how to cook a hen. Her hilarious mixture of French and southern U.S. accents along with highly animated expressions and pebbly vocals are a great contrast to the high drama of the Queen/Diane conflagration playing out around her.
Rebecca Schweitzer returns in Act Three as a bumbling Brit in tropical attire, Mr. Patterson, tasked with ensuring the security of His Majesty’s rule and decorum in the harem of India’s Maharaja. There, his wife and baby-toting Maharani (Anisha Jagannathan) is at war with the ruler’s concubine and purported witch, Roop Rai (Jasmine Sharma). The cartoonish klutz Mr. Patterson becomes a ready target for the courtly love triangle to pause in their own back-and-forth arrows and to see him as the bigger enemy as representative of the occupying British. As they form a new union among themselves, Rebecca Schweitzer has a chance to provide some of the night’s biggest laughs for us as audience as the rather ridiculous Patterson.
The witchery that men have often through the ages accused of women becomes in the final act the avenue for a daring sophomore at Oxbridge University to help a junior co-ed named Swarn (Anisha Jagannathan) to find out who she really is. Reciting incantations waving wide-spread fingers that bring their own lexicon of expressions, Rebecca Schweitzer as the collegiate witch conjures spirits of grandparents Swarn never knew in order for her to find through their life’s story the strength she as a young woman needs to face her future.
This act of self-discovery is at best only loosely connected to the first three acts of wives and lovers emerging from their male-defined legacies to rewrite their stories and to declare their newfound sisterhood. Swarn’s journey becomes a much too-long trip for the rest of us, with her final soliloquy zapping any remaining energy still lingering from the earlier, faster-paced acts. Other earlier threats to the play’s overall tempo include a couple of act-ending musical numbers (Leela Oleszkeiwicz, composer) that are neither sung very well nor do much to enhance the play’s premise.
Kunal Prasad makes mostly brief appearances as each of the first three acts’ famous men, with his overall effect – partly due to script and partly to his interpretations – generally being less successful or impactful than that of his fellow actors. His most successful outing of the evening is during King Henri’s joust when Prasad’s comedic skills shine with slapstick flair.
While Jaclyn Backhaus’ Wives has already played Off-Broadway in 2019 prior to this Aurora West Coast premiere, in many ways the script still seems like one under development. The high points of the evening are in the first two acts. The third act in India convolutes the introduced theme of masculine histories hiding feminine legacies by its adding a strong thread of satirizing British dominance over India. By the fourth act, pace and approach shift 180-degrees; and we are left wondering a bit how this story fits in a play entitled Wives. That said, the effort and approach is unique and often powerful in this production of Wives by the Aurora cast, director, and crew; and there is no way an audience member can walk away without further contemplation how in fact the ‘history’ we have been taught is rarely the ‘herstory’ we should know more about.
Rating: 3.5 E
Wives continues through July 24, 2022, in production by Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne