American Theater Company's (ATC) regional premiere of Men on Boats, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by artistic director Will Davis, took on the story of the one-arm captain, William Wesley Powell, who was commissioned by the U.S. government in 1869 to map the Green and Colorado rivers of the Grand Canyon.
Davis was recently appointed as ATC artistic director and Men on Boats is his first production for the company. He was also responsible for staging the Off Broadway version of the play in 2015.
The expedition, the first sanctioned in the American West, consisted of 10 grizzled explorers who set out on four boats, courageously riding through the rivers of the Grand Canyon. However, their varied personalities were almost as difficult to navigate as the terrain.
Backhaus' Men on Boats, performed by a genderfluid cast of women and folks otherwise defined, provides an entertaining look this historic journey as well as perhaps providing a statement on just how much American society and the role of women have changed since the 1800's.
The ATC cast includes ATC ensemble member Kelly O'Sullivan (William Dunn) and ATC youth ensemble alumna Lawren Carter (Hall), with Erin Barlow (Frank Goodman), Arti Ishak (John Colton Sumner), Brittney Love Smith (Bradley), Sarai Rodriguez (Seneca Howland), Avi Roque (O.G. Howland), Stephanie Shum (Hawkins), Kelli Simpkins (John Wesley Powell) and Lauren Sivak (Old Shady).
A simple yet effective set and props, as well as carefully choreographed movements, provide a heightened sense of action, especially when the explorers tackle the imagined vertical drops in the rivers.
Although the cast is really good at selling the quirkiness and reticence of some of the explorers and how those differences lead to small skirmishes among the crews, at times it is not enough to sustain it through the 100-minute performance.
Overall Backhaus provides is an interesting and sobering look at how a group of people can risk everything in the name of adventure and discovery. It speaks to the heroism we often bestow on our early American West explorers, their faith and commitment in their own visions yet it also highlights the vulnerabilities, conflicts and contradictions of blind loyalty. For it is only one person, John Wesley Powell, who reaps the actual benefits of their bravery as a team.
Men on Boats is playing at ATC now through February 12, 2017. Tickets are available at the ATC box office or by visiting atcweb.org.
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