Wives, a contemporary production consisting of four separate vignettes about women through the ages, is an example of when more is less.
Wives, Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., through July 24
In combining the four skits into one comedic show, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus has given us only caricatures of these diverse women, which are mostly jumbled send-ups. Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, Wives is not without creative ideas and humor; it simply fails to coalesce and deliver significant meaning and message.
Rebecca Schweitzer introduces the first scene as a cook to Henri II of France with a funny imitation of a 16th-century version of Julia Child. We watch Henri’s rejected queen, Catherine de’ Medici (Jasmine Sharma), and Henri’s beloved mistress, Diane de Poitiers (Anisha Jagannathan), verbally joust with each other. At the same time, their Henri (Kunal Prasad) dies while physically jousting. The contemporary salty language nicely juxtaposes the period costumes, as the two women make peace after Henri’s death.
The best interlude comes next. It’s the imagined aftermath of Ernest Hemingway’s 1961 funeral, attended by his three living spouses — his first wife, Hadley Richardson (Jasmine Sharma), the journalist Martha Gellhorn (Anisha Jagannathan), and his widow, Mary Welsh (Rebecca Schweitzer). After much liquor consumption, the three take turns cleverly parodying the Hemingway style. Though often done, author Backhaus makes the lampooning fun to watch. The women ultimately find themselves relieved to be out from under the spell and the thumb of their larger-than-life husband.
In 1920s India, then colonized by Great Britain, we next meet the Maharani of Rajasthan (Anisha Jagannathan), her husband, the Maharajah Madho Singh II (Kunal Prasad), and his favorite concubine/witch, Roop Rye (Jasmine Sharma). They are being spied on by a suspicious and malicious “resident,” the local representative of the British Crown, Aloysius Patterson (Rebecca Schweitzer), who is aghast at the goings-on among the threesome. According to an interview with the playwright, Mr. Patterson was a real person who was the “resident” of Jaipur at the time. Of course, she could find little information about the most exciting character, the witch Roop Rye.
The final interlude is set in present-day “Oxbridge University,” where a student (Rebecca Schweitzer) wants to start a club for witches. One young woman (Anisha Jagannathan) joins the group. The two embark on a surreal journey in which the apparition of the young woman’s dead grandparents (Jasmine Sharma and Kunal Prasad) appear and speak with her. I didn’t fully comprehend the thrust of this vignette, especially when it devolved into a way-too-long final speech.
It is challenging to summarize Wives in a few words, given its complex combination of feminism, cleverness, and slapstick. The author’s attempt to reassess historical female figures using 21st century sensibility and language is astute. Yet, the writing and structure lacked cohesiveness. And it wasn’t funny enough to make up the difference. The actors, however, were generally first-rate. The stand-out was Jasmine Sharma, who displayed great stage presence and elan. I hope to see more of her.
Backhaus’s adventure/history play Men on Boats was successfully staged at the ACT’s Strand Theater in 2018 after its New York run. The creative gender-reversed retelling of Major John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River expedition had deeper characterizations and more substance than her new offering.
Live performances of Wives at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre run through July 24. Streamed performances are available from July 19-24. Wives is 90 minutes long, with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing are required for in-person performances. Tickets are $40-$48 ($20 streaming). For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre website or call 510-843-4822.