Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Wives” evades definition. The play, which had its West Coast premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company on June 24, takes a very complicated approach to explore a relatively simple and intriguing question: In a world dominated by the patriarchy, what are the lost stories of wives and women?
Directed by Lavina Jadhwani, “Wives” tells a non-chronological story about Catherine de’ Medici, queen to Henry II of France; Hadley Richardson, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh, three of Ernest Hemingway’s wives; Maharani Gayatri Devi, wife to Maharaja Man Singh II, and Roop Rai, his concubine; and two Oxbridge University students who attempt to reframe the world using witchcraft.
Straightforward yet bold, Backhaus executes her uncommon subject matter with even more unconventional storytelling. The result is a play that can be described as just about everything but consistent; disjointed stories intersect with spontaneous bursts of singing and spoken word, history is injected with modern colloquialisms and comedy collides with solemnity in a fashion harmonious in one moment, but dissonant the next. “Wives” blurs all its creative lines, and some combinations flatten together rather than compound.
Where “Wives” is amusing, it is also simultaneously confusing. It’s unclear whether or not the play takes itself seriously, but it can’t do both. As audiences collect questions about the creative decisions and deeper meaning behind the play, they receive few answers. One can’t help but hope that the various paths the play pursues will eventually reconnect at the end — that cathartic clarity will pierce through all doubts — but this is one more expectation that goes unmet.
Backhaus’ play exemplifies the near limitlessness of theatrical storytelling by extending beyond the confines of what many viewers find familiar. Evoking discomfort with the unknown isn’t innately harmful; though difficult to pull off, this kind of experimentation is fundamental to art itself. However, “Wives” attempts to venture down so many directions, it ends up barely moving at all.
Though the play may be jumping in place, when it leaps, it reaches great heights. “Wives” utilizes a cast of four actors — Jasmine Sharma, Rebecca Schweitzer, Anisha Jagannathan and Kunal Prasad — to play 16 different roles, allowing each performer to demonstrate a wide range of talent. Effortlessly tackling the challenge, the cast members prove their theatrical prowess. The actors fully commit to each character they portray, preventing the various worlds from bleeding into one another and ensuring clear transportation to each one. Sharper than the fictional space they occupy, Sharma, Schweitzer, Jagannathan and Prasad give expressive performances that are enjoyable on their own.
“Wives” is also refreshingly funny, though the humor may not always land. Whether the comedy is delivered through caustic dialogue or emerges naturally as part of the play’s curious world, Backhaus will make audiences laugh in ways they aren’t used to. It’s often uncertain whether the play is genius, ridiculous or genius because it’s so ridiculous, but the through line that cuts the organized chaos is obvious: “Wives” is entertaining. The ways Backhaus tries to extract a laugh differ from the norm and from one another, setting the play up to offer an endless series of pleasant surprises.
Despite crafting a sometimes convoluted plot, Backhaus’ writing shines throughout the play. Though the underlying messages are not always immediately distinguishable, Backhaus injects the work with more than a handful of stunning lines. Her skillful use of language adds poetic stability, and even though she frequently disrupts this steadiness, the audience’s ears perk up when she makes the inevitable return to earnestness.
The collective outcome of a multitude of ambitious experiments by Backhaus, “Wives” comes out both clouded and visionary. The play opens more creative doors than it can close, but all can appreciate the glimpses it offers into what may lie beyond.