By Sandi Durell
Women of today find themselves fighting the feminist battle of equality on so many levels that it was probably time for playwright Jaclyn Backhaus (Men on Boats) to have a go at creating a more absurdist, unique path to victory.
With playful, zany, amusing fun, many truthful words can be spoken and lessons learned which is what Backhaus is hoping for in Wives at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Margot Bordelon, as we pay attention to the women who circled male historical figures to finally unburden themselves in this very contemporary envisioning.
Back, back in time to 16th C France, at the Chateau de Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley, we find King Henri II (Sathya Sridharan) manipulating his legitimate wife Queen Cathy de Medici (played by Purva Bedi) against his mistress Diane (Aadya Bedi), whom the Queen calls ‘MotherFker Diane,’ as Henri readies for battle resulting in his jousting death.
And fear not, there’s always the cook (a very amusing comic Adina Verson) giving us a lesson in cooking chickens – ‘Once you’ve plucked your feathers out of your dead chickens drizzle them with olive oil or lard or grease … ‘ while mistress Diane slugs liquid gold to keep her young and healthy.
There’s a full meal of verbal jousting to swallow until the women find they have mutual benefits that lie ahead if they bond.
Don’t get too comfortable as the time period quickly changes to Ketchum, Idaho (1961), the actors doing a quick change while singing A Wive’s World (original music Kate Marvin) . . . and the male gaze will be cast away somewhere up among the stars . . . (eventually…we’re not there yet).
The women are now at Ernest Hemingway’s funeral – Big Ern is dead but his wives are present and accounted for except the one who died. They berate, bemoan, make comparisons and talk him into oblivion . . . Mary saying he committed suicide because of the government following him. Alas, they’re all just complacent women until they find common ground with some cheers and drinks. Somehow they’re faced with a dead fish – a marlin. . . the je ne sais quois! Something to sing and dance about and set the spirit free. Reminded me of that good ole song from South Pacific “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”
Switch now to Madhavendra Palace in Rajasthan, India (1920s) where Maharaja Madho Singh II is undergoing healing sessions by his favorite Concubine, Witch Roop Rai, while Mr. Patterson (Adina Verson in men’s garb and as a British spy) is extremely interested in the breastfeeding relationship of the Maharani to her newborn child – – breasts agog!
Mind you, you have to keep up with all the new age chatter in these days of yonder that, at times, can be tedious.
At last we’ve reached present day at Oxbridge University where a young sophomore (Verson) has begun an essay writing space, a photo of Virginia Woolf hangs proudly on the wall, where she is concocting a brew in her cauldron of ancestors attracting her one ally attempting to break away from the patriarchal cycle . . . tired of being told by the world she doesn’t exist.
The cast comes together to seek, to listen, to question, to wait… to express feelings of relief, regret, fear, despair, to explain, explore, search and realize ‘everything about you is right.’
Reid Thompson creates the multi time period scenic design and Valérie Thérèse Bart the costumes. The cast, playing multiple roles, is uniformly at the top of their game.
Surely Backhaus offers a fresh and unusual way with words to spread her message in presenting and getting attention, something she calls Delighted Listening – – What delights you? What do you want to know more about? In her own words: ‘ The categorical dismissal of questions is a patriarchal act. The embrace of them, of the unknown, is an embrace of possibility, an embrace of freedom, an embrace of intersection between all facets and lenses of humanity.’
Photos: Joan Marcus
Wives at Playwrights Horizons – Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42 St., runs thru Oct. 6 – 80 minutes, no intermission