By Jaclyn Backhaus; Directed by Will Davis
Produced by Clubbed Thumb
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Ran through 6.29.15
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street
by Dan Dinero on 6.29.15
The cast of Men on Boats. Photo by Richard Termine for the New York Times.
BOTTOM LINE: With one of the more “inaccurate” titles in recent memory, Men on Boats is a breath of fresh Western air in the downtown theatre scene.
Downtown theatre can have the reputation (often well-deserved) of being self-consciously ironic, a bit “too cool for school” in its effort to skewer theatrical conventions and avoid easy sentiment. Men on Boats is that rare piece that is recognizably “downtown” in theatrical style and tone, yet never full of itself about this fact. If at times it meanders a bit (much like the journey it chronicles), what we see on stage is almost always engaging.
The story is based on John Wesley Powell’s published journals of his exploration of the Colorado River and (what would later be named) the Grand Canyon. Much of Men on Boats takes place on this river. It begins with all ten explorers onstage, in groups of two and three, steering their boats (effectively signaled by easily moveable prows), as brief shouted-out directions accompany tightly choreographed movement. Director Will Davis is perhaps at his best in these “travel” scenes – the excitement is palpable as the explorers navigate the often treacherous waters. But the scenes “on land” are equally enjoyable – in different vignettes, we see the trials and tribulations of this journey. In perhaps the best scene in the play, we see how the crew interacts with the native Utes. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus does not shy away here from slyly commenting on what would soon happen to the American Indian population, but wisely does so with sarcasm and humor.
Had Davis and Backhaus cast the show with all men, Men on Boats would still have been solid theatre. But their most significant intervention is deciding not to use any male actors, or at least, no cis-gender ones. I won’t say it’s a cast of ten women – this is too simplistic (and I suspect incorrect). Nor would I say it’s really “drag,” in the sense we might normally imagine it. Drag is typically campy and self-aware; the actors here play men much more truthfully. What the casting does is evidence how much masculinity – “being a man” – IS play, more a function of performance than identity, more action than essence. (This may not be news to some, but it is refreshing to see such tenets of queer theory so brilliantly, and accessibly, portrayed on the stage.) And this playful performance of masculinity is all the more visible because these characters are the heroes of the national imaginary – those steadfast explorers whose stories have proved foundational for both our conception of the American West and what it means to be a "real man."
The entire ensemble is excellent, but I especially liked both Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Sumner and Becca Blackwell as Hawkins. But perhaps the best performance is by Jess Barbagallo, whose portrayal of Old Shady, Captain Powell’s simple-minded brother, is wonderfully odd and often deliriously funny. Barbagallo’s rendition of the “Tin Fish” song still haunts my dreams, in the best way possible.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s stark set design, featuring an almost entirely empty stage backed by a black and white image of the surrounding land, shifts as the play goes on, to allow for a final, beautiful stage picture. Solomon Weisbard’s lighting expertly takes us from day to night and back again, all the while helping to chart the mood of the team. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are perfect in their evocation of character, and all the more striking in their use of blacks, whites, and greys.
And Jane Shaw’s sound design is especially enjoyable, making use of the sounds of rushing water along with instrumental music that wonderfully evokes the kind of old film that we might typically expect to tell this story. And that’s much of what makes Men on Boats so effective. Whereas theatre that aims to be politically subversive often makes its points at the expense of the story, here we get both, and Men on Boats is all the more wonderful because of it.
(Men on Boats played at the Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, through June 29, 2015. Tickets were $18 and were available at www.clubbedthumb.org.)