In MEN ON BOATS, Jaclyn Backhaus’ play about the 1869 journey of white men down the Green and Colorado Rivers, director Will Davis creates one memorable image after another with a non-male, multi-racial cast. Now playing at American Theater Company, MEN ON BOATS provides 105 minutes of exquisitely sculpted tableaux and dynamically choreographed episodes as the quirky team of 10 goes on a heart-stopping river ride.
American Theater Co. Director shows A passion for movement
Davis, American Theater Company’s new artistic director, has a passion for stage movement. In this inaugural production, his gifts are on full display and his talented, high-octane cast never lets him down. Inspired by the expedition of John Wesley Powell who lost his arm in the Civil War and went on to chart the Grand Canyon, Bauhaus’ script sets Powell and his nine historically-based crew members in motion right from the top.
MEN ON BOATS traces the explorers on their treacherous expedition in four small wooden boats, indicated only by planks embossed with the names of actual vessels. But what the actors convey with those humble planks, some rope and a sloped scenic structure that represents canyon walls is vast and frightening. The designers – William Boles (set), Brandon Wardell (lighting), Melissa Ng (costumes), Miles Polaski (sound) and Jamie Karas (props) – establish an evocative space for the cohesive ensemble that includes Kelli Simpkins, Kelly O’Sullivan, Arti Ishak, Lauren Sivak, BrittneyLove Smith, Avi Roque, Sarai Rodriguez, Erin Barlow, Lawren Carter and Stephanie Shum
Humor lightens the load
Lightening the load of one danger after another are moments of hilarity, as when the fearless travelers are undone by rattlesnakes – until one member of the group announces that dead, defanged snakes can be served for dinner. Humor and irony allow primal issues to rise to the surface: one explorer, challenging Powell’s leadership, notes that Powell gives orders that he himself – lacking his right arm – cannot execute. Laughter laces an encounter with local Native Americans who refer ironically to the U.S. government’s generosity in allowing them to cultivate their own ancestral lands – and produce crops that save the men from starvation.
Intriguingly, the use of non-male actors to play male explorers who helped to map the American West is never really addressed. But the gender choice doesn’t hinder the story. In fact, the absence of traditional testosterone lends it suppleness and universality. The racially mixed cast feels similarly organic, simply the best actor for each role.
Men on Boats has Limited characterization
For all its visual excitement, however, MEN ON BOATS does not quite feel complete when it comes to characterization. The audience is presented with many fascinating personalities in short scenes throughout – well written by Backhaus and well-played by nuanced actors. But these do not evolve into deeper portraits. The result is a show packed with astonishing tableaux but not enough narrative build and emotional connection. When Powell’s rival for authority, William Dunn, predicts the group has only a 5% chance of survival and will therefore abandon it, two people choose to go with him. It’s an important moment, but in terms of character development it’s not altogether convincing that these individuals, versus some of the others, would make that decision.
The result, nonetheless, is a production that offers sophisticated staging and exceptional ensemble work. Visually inventive, MEN ON BOATS is best viewed from the central seating area of American Theater Company’s space; the sightlines from smaller side sections are somewhat hampered by structural beams.
January 12 - February 12
Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 pm
Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 pm
American Theater Company
1909 W. Byron, Chicago
Photos by Michael Brosilow
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.