Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
It's an honorable endeavor, and Backhaus chose to amplify the voices of a variety of interesting women from history both ancient and recent: Catherine de Medici; three of Ernest Hemingway's wives; a maharani of Rajasthan near the end of British colonial rule of India; as well as a fictional student at an also fictional British college (Oxbridge University) who is starting a witchcraft club. But the manner in which she has chosen to amplify those voices–in part by putting highly contemporary language into the mouths of even the 16th century characters–calls attention to the language itself and not the characters' underlying passions and desires. When Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of French king Henri II and nemesis of Catherine de Medici, refers to her as "your maj," or when the maharajah of Rajasthan blurts out an "OMG - she's so the best bae!," it plucks us out of the moment. These are only two of the most egregious examples of this, but most of the dialogue seems to have been written by an angsty teen whose literary skills top out at texting, and whose use of "like" as a linguistic filler is so common it must have someone like Christopher Hitchens (who referred to its use as "the Californization of youth-speak") spinning in his grave.
Add to this the fact that director Lavina Jadhwani has seemingly instructed her cast (Jasmine Sharma, Rebecca Schweitzer, Anisha Jagannathan as the various wives, mistresses and other women, and Kunal Prasad playing all the male roles) to turn the volume to 11 and overemphasize their line readings so that every "dare u speak to ur fucking queen that way?" or "yard sale bitches!!!" feels like something from an overacted 19th century melodrama. That may have been Backhaus's or Jadhwani's intention as a way to play up the comedy, but it comes across more like a high school production–cast with the biggest hams on campus.
The best moments in Wives come in act two, where Sharma, Schweitzer and Jagannathan play three of Ernest Hemingway's four wives (the three who were still alive when Hemingway killed himself, wife number two–Pauline Pfeiffer–having predeceased him) imagine what he would have said about them at their funerals. The three perfectly adopt Hemingway's style in a way that is both hilarious and reminds us what clear, direct prose sounds like–especially since it's bookended by valley girl speak like "don't you just wonder like sometimes like how chewy and hot it would be to like be married to like such a thick slab of masculinity?"
Ultimately, Wives devolves into pretentious attempts at high-mindedness and poetic fireworks that fizzle rather than thrill, such as: "my penchant for hrondak eloquation, my nobular roughage, my lamphuminous glow, my egrete, wax-bonded, exugenant feeling..." that left me feeling both over-stimulated and underwhelmed.
Wives runs through July 24, 2022, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $20-$78. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.