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.
American Theater Company starts the year with a world premiere by author Dan LeFranc, directed by Joanie Schultz. "Bruise Easy" is a modern day retelling of Electra, set in the seemingly vapid world of southern California.
When Tess (Kelly O'Sullivan) returns to her childhood home to find her estranged brother Alec (Matt Farabee) smoking weed on the driveway, she's mortified. In a series of somewhat unanswered questions, we're given a glimpse into a family torn apart by imperfect parents. Scenes are punctuated by a group of masked "neighborhood kids" who serve as the Greek chorus. With a short running time of 85 minutes, stand-up Tess and screw-up Alec trade barbs and acts of uncomfortable sexual tension.
LeFranc's script is troubled though. While the gimmick of the Greek chorus is at first interesting, it ends up becoming a major distraction and overall pretty useless as a storytelling device. The author tries to communicate his heavy-handed message about suburban ambitions through this technique, which instead should be more apparent in the dialogue between Tess and Alec.
"Bruise Easy" is missing a lot of crucial pieces and leaves viewers without any specific answers. LeFranc fails to develop his characters' narratives, which is a shame because O'Sullivan and Farabee are both really riveting performers to watch.
The dialogue never quite gives us what we want. What happened to their mother? Why is Tess even there? What's the deal with the house? Why can't they go in? Instead, a lot of emphasis is placed on reminding us that it's 2005. Unfortunately many of the ways we're reminded come off as forced. Putting audiences in a certain time period involves more than dated pop culture references.
LeFranc would certainly benefit from either adding more to the script or subtracting the elements that don't work, and clarifying the hazy details. There's just too much dead air here. It's apparent the author knows a lot more about these characters than he's letting on. He seems more concerned with the idea that it's a Greek tragedy set in California than he is the actual lives of the characters.
Director Joanie Schultz's vision for this show also tends to stand in the way. There's an MTV circa-1995 aesthetic that really doesn't match the tone of the script. "Bruise Easy" has an anti-establishment theme running through it, but it's not as cheeky as the interlude graphics and pop music wants it to be. There's a lot going on here, and narrowing what exactly LeFranc wants his audience to leave with will benefit this play in subsequent productions.
Through February 14th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street.
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