Jacklyn Backhaus Spins Herstory from Medieval to Modern
by Patricia L. Morin
Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Wives,” a comic satire spanning five centuries in four acts, mixes exaggerated caricatures of women as they struggle with the roles of wife, lover, and mother.
“Wives” begins in the kitchen of medieval French king Henry II, then whisks us to Ernest Hemingway’s funeral in 1961. Then Backhaus takes us back to the last Maharaja’s harem in 1920s India.
In medieval France, royal girlfriend Diane de Poitiers (Anisha Jagannathan) and Queen Catherine de Medici (Jasmine Sharma) attack each other with spiteful, jealous accusations. After King Henry (Kunal Prasad) dies comically, we are delighted to see Diane and Catherine evolve from foes to friends, forming a new sisterhood.
Next, at Hemingway’s funeral, his three surviving wives compare their roles. First wife, Hadley (Sharma) asserts, “The first wife is the best, there is no background.” Sharma curls into a ball as she beautifully describes the inner woman of the time:
full of regret for a face she had made
afraid to speak up about what she wanted
. . .
by contracting her physical space
so that she took up less of it
. . .
by squeezing herself
a snail into its shell
These cultural “rules” still apply to women trapped in unwanted roles.
We quickly realize that “Wives” subverts the stereotypical hatred between wives and girlfriends. Playing with women’s feelings as wives and lovers, Backhaus uses earthy modern language to signal their new-found independence.
They celebrate the burning of Hemingway’s prize trophy, a huge blue swordfish, to express their unity and liberation. These women step away from the misogyny of their clueless husbands; but they still see themselves from a man’s point of view.
In the last days of British-occupied India, the royal concubine and the Maharani find complicated reasons for another comic alliance between traditionally opposed women. They still struggle with their roles of wife, lover, and mother. Although they find clever ways to unite as women, they still operate under a patriarchy.
Director Lavina Jadhwani leans toward exploiting the satire to near folly, setting a swift pace and comic intensity with the four fine actors. Costume designer Courtney Flores’ stunning dresses draw us into each era’s time warping scenerio.
Vibrant Rebecca Schweitzer covers diverse roles—from rough-handed French cook, to bumbling British Commander, to an aspiring witch at Oxbridge University. She evokes the playwright’s ancestors to interrogate them on their repressed feelings.
“Wives” begins to feel frantic, losing touch with its feminist point. By the end, the women are chanting over and over, like a spinning top out of control:
everything about us is right
everything about us was right
everything about us will be alright
In the Oxbridge scene, among magical incantations, the wives lose our sympathy—as they look to the past, not the present.
“Wives” mixes daring comedy with the historical roles of women to tear down stereotypes. Backhaus invites women to see ourselves anew once again, with a better perspective on family, love, and other women.
“Wives” by Jaclyn Backhaus, directed by Lavina Jadhwani, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, California. Info: AuroraTheatre.org – to Sunday, July 24, 2022.
Cast: Anisha Jagannathan, Kunal Prasad, Rebecca Schwitzer, and Jasmine Sharma.
Banner photo: Anisha Jagannathan, Jasmine Sharma, and Rebecca Schweitzer. Photos by Kevin Berne