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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
WIVES
at Playwrights Horizons

OMISSIONS RECTIFIED
By MATT WINDMAN

  Sathya Sridharan, Purva Bedi and Aadya Bedi/ Ph: Joan Marcus

“I want to untether myself from the visions made by men,” wistfully explains the newest undergraduate member of the Witches of Oxbridge Club – a place “where we are not scorned but celebrated,” the “patriarchal structure” is tossed aside and remade, and Virginia Woolf looks on in approval – in Wives, a freewheeling,  subversive and divisive historical/gender studies comedy by Jaclyn Backhaus (who is best known for the similarly over-the-top Men on Boats), which is inaugurating the new Off-Broadway season at Playwrights Horizons.

I must confess that I was not a fan of Men on Boats – and I did not much care for Wives either, although I admire Backhaus’ wild sense of theatricality and daring and uncompromising attitude towards both history and the present.

The ensemble cast of Wives is comprised of three actresses (Aaya Bedi, Purva Bedi and Adina Verson) and one actor (Sathya Sridharan). Three of the four performers are of South Asian descent. The frothy 80-minute production is directed by Margot Bordelon, whose prior credits include Something Clean (Roundabout Underground), Do You Feel Anger? (Vineyard Theater) and Eddie and Dave (Atlantic Theater Company).

Backhaus’ thesis, so to speak, is that women have too often been omitted from histories and stories – other than serving supporting roles to “great men,” such as wives, mistresses and villains. In Wives, she reinterprets three such histories in an attempt to pay heed to the overlooked women, and then envisions a college club that shares and celebrates her outlook. The scenes tend to be short and silly, not unlike skits.

The first scene, set in 1500s France, revolves around King Henri II; his wife, Queen Catherine de Medici; and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Catherine, no fan of Henri’s philandering and feeling discarded, is seen modifying Henri’s jousting equipment (leading to a bloody death) and then rewriting his will so as to leave Diane out in the cold. There is also a cook, who randomly talks to the audience about her experiences with dead chickens. Amid the fighting between Catherine and Diane, they pause to consider that they are expected to dislike each other and perhaps they should align themselves instead.

In the next scene, in 1960s Idaho, it is Earnest Hemingway’s funeral and three of his wives are getting drunk, making fun of Hemingway’s writing style, and arguing that Hemingway thought nothing of them (or rather as just “a high-pitched series of holes with blinking eyes”) and they will continue to be written off in history. This is followed by a scene in 1920s India where a fussy Englishman objects to the close, apparently polyamorous relationship between the Maharaja, his mistress and his wife. As the finale (“now with ghosts,” according Backhaus), the Witches of Oxbridge make spells, call upon the spirits of the women who were disregarded in the prior scenes, and chant to themselves “everything about you is right,” with a note of hope that these young women will be able to take charge of their own destinies and write their own stories.

Many audience members at my performance seemed to love it. Personally speaking, I did not laugh once. To me, Wives is really more of a concept than a dramatic work. It made me think of some other works with similar aims that were more successful, including Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine (which explores feminism and sexism with offbeat and experimental methods of storytelling) and Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite and First Daughter Suite (which consist of scenes dramatizing various First Ladies and First Wives of Presidents of the United States). It is very possible that over time, Backhaus will eventually hit upon a work that merges her aesthetic with a deeper sense of craft – and I look forward to checking that out.

 


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