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.
Sex sells as the old adage goes. It may be marketable, but you have to ask yourself what it has to say. Likely sex will dominate the discussion among patrons of Thomas Bradshaw's new play at American Theater Company. With bold direction by Ethan McSweeney, Fulfillment will undoubtedly ruffle some subscriber feathers.
The play begins with Michael (Stephen Conrad Moore) purchasing a multi-million dollar apartment in Soho and describing his sexual relationship with his coworker, Sarah (Erin Barlow). She soon puts the idea in his head that he isn't being made partner at the law firm because of his race. Whether it's true or not becomes subject to interpretation as the rest of Michael's life begins to spiral out of control.
Bradshaw's script is flawed in that it's not enough about any one thing to really grasp at a central narrative or question. If it's a play about the inequality of underrepresented groups (African Americans and women) it never really connects the dots in the way that say, Disgraced does. If it's a play about American desire for more and more, why isn't the main character greedier?
The scenes are too copious and too short to get down to anything significant. In fact, there's never really any rational conflict between characters, or at least none that lead to anything consequential. More often it's a story about a man who has trouble with his neighbor and the occasional drinking binge. The unfortunate part is that the dialog is actually really strong and incredibly well-acted, but in the end, it doesn't really add up to much.
Perhaps even more distracting are the numerous instances of gratuitous stage sex and full frontal nudity that cross the line of good taste. It seems to be an overused, if not unnecessary, gimmick on which this play too heavily relies. Maybe if the material was edgy enough to justify the graphic content, it would seem more vital. Mostly it just comes off as a desperate attempt to shock audiences.
Through December 13th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street.
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