Show: “Men on Boats”
Company: American Theater Company
Venue: 1909 W Byron St
Theatre can take you anywhere. Film can plant your field of vision in exotic locales, showing off brilliant sunsets and spotlighting wild rivers cutting through jagged cliffs. But only theatre can transport you into a world entirely of your own creation, where you accept colored gels are the rays of a sunset, and trust that fear in the performers’ eyes reflects an unforgiving canyon rising upwards. Theatre takes you on a journey, and the trip is so delightful because you build its scenes and story arcs with your limitless imagination.
American Theater Company’s “Men on Boats,” a regional premiere by Jaclyn Backhaus, uses little but the human brain to construct its travelogue of, well, men on boats. While the scenic design is sharp and the casting creative, the production provides little in the way of dramatic conflict, and the script’s overreliance on shallow theatricality and repetitive imagery bores after the first thirty minutes.
The plot, such as it is, follows the first-ever government sanctioned expedition to map the Green and Colorado Rivers. Though telling a tale set soon after the Civil War, Backhaus relies on snarky anachronisms to ground the play in contemporary life and attitudes. (When the explorers meet with members of a Native American tribe, the Utes remarks they want to keep everything chill.) Will Davis — as director and in his first turn as ATC’s new artistic leader — has cast a play containing mostly male characters with an entirely genderfluid company, and his sendups of masculine posturing encourage a lot of laughter early on. John Wesley Powell (Kelli Simpkins) leads the adventurous crew, preferring to brave rapids rather than portage boats and cost the explorers time. William Dunn (Kelly O’Sullivan) acts as Powell’s second-in-command, helping the major name natural landmarks, and helping the crew by hunting rabbits. John Colton Sumner (Arti Ishak) knows the wild and the people who live in the West. Bradley (BrittneyLove Smith) has loads of enthusiasm, the Howland brothers (Sarai Rodriguez and Avi Roque) have smarts, Old Shady (Lauren Sivak) is Powell’s mysterious brother, Frank Goodman (Erin Barlow) is British, Hawkins (Stephanie Shum) cooks the food, and Hall (Lawren Carter) keeps the map. These characters do not change over the course of the play’s almost two-hour run time. They do bits, they lose boats; their dynamics strain, but only break once. Dunn believes Powell’s carelessness might get them all killed, but the higher-ups’ continued argument results in little escalation. For a play about losing supplies and facing the elements, danger rarely seems to be a real concern.
This is a problem for a comedy about surviving the length of the Grand Canyon. In order for the audience to believe in the story being told, real risks must be taken in the telling. One could argue that Backhaus has an ambitious theatrical bent; she does not shy away from portraying the crew’s run through raging rapids and waterfalls. Long stretches of the play involve people being thrown from boats and thrashing their way to shore. But Backhaus does not trust the audience in such scenes. When her characters ride the waters, they simply shout which direction they are headed, or they remind us which oars they use to move right or left. This gives those watching little to imagine. What we see is all we get. There are no puzzle pieces to put together, no mess for us to shape up in our minds. Davis is smart to put the crew in tight formations, their movements mimicking the tumult of the waves. But that spectacle is only spectacle. One never wonders whether there is an unexpected turn up ahead.
Kudos should be given to props designer Jamie Karas. Two boards hinged together make up the prow of each expedition boat, and they break up in surprising ways. Similarly, scenic designer William Boles is smart to opt for a simple background; the set’s main wall creates a vanishing point that serves as a cliff or a muddy bank. These utilitarian choices make room for the audience’s imagination, even if the script does not. Likewise, light designer Brandon Wardell paints the set in rich colors to denote every shade of the sky, though the excessive use of stage fog obscures the setting of time and place far too often. Costume designer Melissa Ng gives each character personal flair, whether that be a pair of suspenders or a dead snake wrapped around a cowboy hat; each of the ten crew members leaves a distinct impression, no matter how large or small the role.
Which leads us to the performances, all uniformly good. Sivak stands out for sheer weirdness and her milking of oddly phrased pre-dinner blues tunes. Simpkins dominates her scenes by force of will, and Smith gently reminds everybody that being young and excited is no vice. O’Sullivan has the heaviest lifting to do as the major dissenter, but she manages to rise to Ishak’s goofy level when they debate whether napping has any value. All in all, the ensemble serves the material well. Their work deserved a more daring script.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Adventure’s promised; only unimaginative conflict and repetitive imagery is delivered.
RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”