by Carol Rocamora
Who says lightning can’t strike twice in the same place? Or, rather, in the same theatre season?
While we eagerly await the rock musical megahit Six to come in from London, a playwright on our own shores has already scooped the same hot idea for her own neo-feminist play – namely, the women behind great men in history, and rewriting their stories for a contemporary audience.
Jaclyn Backhaus’s Wives, the wild romp now playing at Playwrights’ Horizons, takes us backwards in time, introducing us to a colorful cadre of largely forgotten wives and mistresses who come back from the dead to take their merry revenge on history and the ungrateful, undeserving men they served. It’s a great premise for a fast-and-furious, off-the-walls, absurdist satire on the patriarchal past, and this playwright makes gleeful use of it in four deliciously outlandish scenes.
In the first, we find ourselves in 16th century France at the Château de Chenonceaux, where we meet Catherine de’ Medici (aka Queen Cathy, played by Purva Bedi), wife of the King Henri II, and Diane, his mistress (Aadya Bedi). As the palace cook (Adina Verson) bastes her chickens, Henri’s women fight tooth-and-nail for his love – and for his kingdom, too, after he dies from a joust wound. But wait, says Diane: “We’re supposed to hate each other. That’s the way the story goes.” What if they decide to form an alliance instead, Diane wonders, subverting expectations? That’s the novel, table-turning question this clever playwright asks of history, with raucous results.
Next, we jump centuries and cross continents – to Ketchum, Idaho and the second scene called “Big Ern” (my favorite). Here we meet three of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway – Hadley Richardson, Martha Gellhorn, and Mary Welsh –as they gather in Idaho after his suicide in 1961 (Pauline Pfeiffer, wife #2, has already died). Instead of mourning him, however, they eulogize him with parodies of “Papa’s” purple prose. The results are uproarious, proving they were better writers than he was. After they drain his liquor cabinet, they take communal revenge on his maddening machismo by setting fire to his giant stuffed trophy marlin fish (the play’s best sight-gag, symbol of Hemingway’s compulsive passion for sports).
In the third scene, we careen around the globe again – this time, to Rajasthan, India, and the Maharaja’s so-called Madhavendra Palace (in the 1920s). In it, Patterson (Adina Verson again), a male representative of The Crown and symbol of Britain’s patriarchal rule, is outmaneuvered by the Maharaja’s wily wife Maharani and mistress Roop Rai, who combine forces against him. At the scene’s exultant conclusion, the Maharaja and his women agree to support each other and be “each other’s wives” (including Marahani’s baby).
Under Margot Bordelon’s spirited direction, a talented four-actor ensemble plays the multiple roles with agility and gusto on Reid Thompson’s resourceful set. Adina Verson is delightfully versatile as Queen Cathy’s cook, Mary (Hemingway’s 4th wife), and the unlucky Patterson. Purva Bedi and Aadya Bedi face off wonderfully as the wives and mistresses in the afore-mentioned scenes. The droll Sathya Sridharan plays the two male roles – Henri and the Maharaja – with relish. Together, they make lots of merry mischief between the scenes, too.
The final scene, set today in so-called “Oxbridge University” (a conglomerate campus where women were once forbidden), features the indoctrination of a student novitiate into the “Witches of Oxbridge” coven. As led by a cauldron-stirring head witch (Adina Verson yet again), the initiation (conducted under the portrait of Virginia Woolf, the cult’s apparent patron saint) is hilarious.
What follows, unexpectedly, is a didactic coda on female identity and self-discovery recited by the ensemble as they surround the novitiate, chanting: “Everything about you is right.” While poetically earnest and heartfelt, it feels gratuitous. The actions of these captivating characters speak for themselves, upending centuries of oppressive patriarchy. As for their legacy? “We’re women, we’re nobody, we can never write ourselves,” laments one of the wives. Don’t worry, Jaclyn Backhaus just did.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Wives, by Jaclyn Backhaus, directed by Margot Bordelon, at Playwrights’ Horizons through October 6.