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.
From its frenetic opening to its poetic end, The Hypocrites' You on the Moors Now is a rip-roaring, hilarious adventure. The play, written by Jaclyn Backhaus, features four of classic literature’s all-time favorite heroines: Jo March, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennett from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Eyre from Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, and Cathy Earnshaw from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”.
Directed by Devon de Mayo, this little gem may not be quite what these famed authors from the 19th century envisioned when they wrote their enduring novels, however for any lover of those romantic classics this new look at our heroines is definitely worth the journey.
Even if you are not familiar with the novels, in a very effective move, de Mayo takes great care to make sure the audience is not lost by creating the “Pemberley Museum” setting complete with artifacts as well as “museum guides” providing detailed information about each heroine.
If you are familiar then you know that Lizzy’s, Jane’s, Cathy’s and Jo’s stories have often been retold on the stage and big and small screen, offering up modern touches and interpretations for new generations. You on the Moors Now attempts to do all of that and more by merging all four storylines seamlessly with humor. It is an empowering look at a group of women who say ‘no’ not only to their ardent suitors but also to the conventions and societal norms expected of them. They lean in and on each other as they embark on a journey that is not without a battle and considerable cost.
One of the elements that makes the play so much fun is the role reversal where the suitors: Laurie (Little Women), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre) are utterly distraught – DISTRAUGHT – even collapsing on the floor in a faint, as if their whole worlds have been destroyed, at the very idea of being so impudently rejected.
Meanwhile, the heroines are settled on the moors around a campfire enjoying s'mores and sharing solidarity and dreams of what they can be and do with their newfound freedom.
In one illuminating scene, the group of heroines observes how men are granted space to get over their disappointments while women are expected to just make themselves presentable for the next opportunity. For them, this moment represents their chance to have that same space and in it, they will live, travel and love.
The men, however, plan to not only find Jo, Jane, Lizzy and Cathy but to exact vengeance for their spurned proposals as well. A battle of the sexes ensues as each side enlists the aid of secondary characters from all four novels including the Bingley siblings from “Pride and Prejudice” – Charles and Caroline, and St. John River and his sister from “Jane Eyre”. Messages are passed from camp to camp via perfumed handkerchiefs and colorful ribbons until a betrayal leads the suitors to the heroines’ encampment where the hilarious battle of the Moors Wars commences – complete with movie and TV references from the “Game of Thrones” to “Home Alone”.
A very talented, diverse cast keeps a fast pace and a consistent rhythm throughout most of the play. However, after an energetic fight scene, the third act slows a bit but that could be due to the shift into more prose and poetic language, which could easily appear in any of the novels, and it provides a very effective and satisfying ending.
You on the Moors Now is playing at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage until October 30, 2016. Tickets can be purchased at www.the-hypocrites.com.
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