It seems rather poetic that newly appointed Artistic Director Will Davis’s first production at American Theater Company, MEN ON BOATS, focuses rather literally on charting new frontiers. Jaclyn Backhaus’s witty, entertaining play (which Davis previously helmed with a different ensemble off-Broadway) offers a fictionalized account of Major John Wesley Powell’s expedition along the Colorado and Green Rivers towards the then-unknown Grand Canyon. The titular men on boats comprise a crew of ten split among four vessels—and all are played by women or gender non-conforming performers.
While the text of Backhaus’s play doesn’t focus overtly on issues of gender identity, we certainly see many moments where the actors are called upon to act in “traditionally masculine” ways, which makes for an intriguing and often humorous dynamic. Backhaus has also constructed her own vernacular, combining both more formal, antiquated language with dialogue that feels purely of this moment—the original explorers likely would have not remarked that certain situations “sucked” back in the 1800s. The anachronistic nature of the script supplies ample laughs in MEN ON BOATS’ 100-minute run-time but feels occasionally erratic.
Davis’s inventive direction feels particularly strong in the choreographic realm. Aside from the witty wordplay, MEN ON BOATS is visually compelling. The ensemble makes clever use of limited props to convey movement along the river. MEN ON BOATS truly feels as if it is constantly in motion. And it is also a simply beautiful production. William Boles’s set gives audiences both a sense of life on the water and on dry land, and Brandon Wardell’s dazzling lighting design adds to this versatility. Melissa Ng’s costume designs reinforces each explorer’s unique personality, while also underscoring the cohesiveness of the expedition members.
Each of the ensemble members handles their roles with aplomb. As the one-armed adventurer and expedition leader Powell, Kelli Simpkins gives both a commanding and generous performance. She convincingly leads the charge but also allows her fellow actors room to shine. And ATC ensemble member Kelly O’Sullivan is every inch Powell’s right-hand (wo)man as William Dunn—she allows us to see both Dunn’s desire to be supportive but also the hunger for power that lies underneath. As Powell’s somewhat aloof older brother Old Shady, Lauren Sivak displays excellent comedic timing (and some lovely vocals, to boot). BrittneyLove Smith is a particular comedic highlight as the fresh-faced newcomer Bradley, and her earnestness lands some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Erin Barlow’s sublime delivery as British explorer Frank Goodman makes the character all her own. There’s not a weak link among the ensemble, and together these ten actors form a cohesive unit of explorers.
While MEN ON BOATS is highly enjoyable and a consistent visual delight, the play does hit a few bumps—as does every expedition. There are many lovely moments in the piece, but it drags in others, and had a few moments that felt like endings before the play continued to soldier on.
MEN ON BOAT is an exciting debut for Davis with a clear vision and unique staging. I am eager to see how American Theater Company’s work will evolve under his leadership.
MEN ON BOATS plays through February 12 at American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron Street. Tickets are $38. Visit ATCWeb.org or call 773.409.4125.
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Read the original review on BroadwayWorld.