Review “Men on Boats” (American Theater Company): See Worthy Crafts!

American Theater Company presents the regional premiere of Jaclyn Backhaus’ MEN ON BOATS.

New Artistic Director Will Davis begins his ATC tenure by rocking the boat… literally.  Davis’ ‘genderfluid cast of women and folks otherwise defined’ are playing male explorers braving the rapids to map out the unknown, wild American West. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus pens a tale about these historic adventurers.  Backhaus weaves together individual backstories, tobacco debates and the enormity of being lost in the wilderness.  The dialogue is witty.  The set-ups are often harrowing.  And the exchanges sometimes absurdly poke fun of the historical reality. When a crew member quits the expedition and asks a tribe for help, the resigned Indians hilariously point out all ‘the help’ they’ve already provided the United States.

Davis takes Backhaus’ story and makes it a spectacle. The design team (William Boles-scenic, Brandon Wardell- lighting, Melissa Ng-costume, Miles Polaski-sound & composition, Jamie Karas-properties) add their special touches.  Boles’ wooden set constructed on an incline is lit by Wardell in watery blues or earthy reds to establish location.  Ng dresses the ensemble in distinction to match their personalities and their function.  Kelly O’Sullivan (William Dunn) dons buckskins from head to toe. The swaggering O’Sullivan continually clashes with the confident and pompous Kelli Simpkins (John Wesley Powell). Simpkins wears her binoculars like a stars and stripes designation of infallible authority. Ng helps us distinguish the large crew. Mapmaker Lawren Carter (Hall) has a vest.  Cook Stephanie Shum (Hawkins) has a headscarf.  The motley brothers, Saraí Rodriguez (Seneca Howland) and Avi Roque (O.G. Howland), have cigarettes dangling from their mouths.

There is a lot of personalities on this stage.  Davis skillfully navigates this colorful ensemble of O’Sullivan, Carter, Erin Barlow (Frank Goodman), Arti Ishak (John Colton Sumner), BrittneyLove Smith (Bradley), Rodriguez, Roque, Stephanie Shum (Hawkins), Simpkins and Lauren Sivak (Old Shady).  Collectively, they move in synchronized perfection down the river, down the rapids, down waterfalls.  Davis orchestrates riveting movements that put us in the action.  The illusion of danger feels real.  As the crew scrambles to anchor to a bank, I’m gripping my seat.  When ropes are thrown to rescue a pioneer overboard, I’m leaning forward to ensure they get to safety.  I’ve never seen choreography that has more effectively thrown me down the river.  It was mesmerizing!

This ensemble is a solid bromance.  There’s tension even in the comedy. A scene between Simpkins and Smith is slapstick and harrowing at the same time.  The effervescent Smith must rescue the hilariously smug Simpkins from a cliff. The clever staging makes it appear to be a hopeless situation while still being funny.  A nod out to the mysterious Sivak playing it both edgy and loony. Sivak looms creepily in the background and then unexpectedly starts to sing some nonsensical tune.  Although Simpkins nods to the rhythm, the rest react to the bizarre antics. It’s hilarious.

I thoroughly enjoyed MEN ON BOATS.  The history lesson was delivered with plenty of thrills and laughs.

Running Time:  One hundred and five minutes with no intermission

At American Theater Company,

Written by Jaclyn Backhaus

Directed by Will Davis

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8 p.m.

Saturdays & Sundays at 2 p.m.

Thru Feb. 12

Buy Tickets by visiting www.atcweb.org.

For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.

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