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A CurtainUp Review
Men On Boats
By Charles Wright

You know the Unwritten Rules. — Powell

Well, yeah, but they're Unwritten, we only follow them half the time.— Dunn

Let's go through em. Just to make sure we're covering some of the bases.— Powell
men on boats
The cast (Photo by Elke Young)
In Men on Boats, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus applies a wildly ribald sensibility to the saga of the first U.S. sanctioned expedition through the Grand Canyon. This new comedy-drama, on view at Playwrights Horizons's Peter Jay Sharp Theater, mixes real 19th century events with racy dialogue that's indisputably this-millennium.

The pioneering expedition that Backhaus depicts embarked as a group of 10 on four boats from Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869, under leadership of Major John Wesley Powell (Kelly McAndrew). Powell was a geologist and Civil War veteran who lost his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh. Over three months, Powell's band of explorers charted the course of the Green and Colorado Rivers, naming geological features along the way.

Powell was a cautious leader, avoiding rapids when possible by portage of boats along the shore. Beset by internal conflict, as well as predictable mishaps and physical hardships, the expedition lost two vessels, supplies, and equipment, as well as four men.

In early July, Englishman Frank Goodman (Birgit Huppuch) left the expedition with Powell's blessing. Three others departed later when Powell refused their demand that he abandon the group's dangerous down-river course. Goodman survived; the other three — Bill Dunn (Kristen Sieh), OG Howland (Hannah Cabell), and Seneca Howland (Danaya Esperanza) — were never seen again.

Men on Boats is a joint production of Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb, an Off-Broadway company which describes its mission as commissioning, developing and producing funny, strange and provocative new plays by living American writers." Eight of the 10 current cast members are veterans of the much-praised premiere of the play at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks festival in 2015. The newcomers, Jocelyn Bioh as Hawkins and Elizabeth Kenny as Powell's brother (nicknamed "Old Shady"), have eased smoothly into an ensemble that displays the kind of coordination and grace that call to mind the work of classically-trained dancers.

In her script, Backhaus requests that the "cisgender white males of Powell's expedition be represented by "racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender-conforming." Under Will Davis's impeccable direction, the diverse, all-women cast is superb throughout. The actors are at their best in sequences, almost balletic in choreography, when the explorers run rapids and shoot down a massive waterfall. These imaginative moments, with their angst-inducing suspense, are no doubt the result of hours and hours of focused rehearsal; but the collegiality and trust required in this sort of performance have probably been developed through years of theater games and acting-class improvisation.

The design team for Men on Boats is as much an ensemble as the acting company. Arnulfo Maldonado has created a three-sided set with grey-on-grey images of crags and cliffs that effectively represent vistas all along the expedition's course. At first glance, the stage design seems as rudimentary as the portable, boxy set of a 19th century repertory company. As the performance progresses, Maldonado and lighting designer Solomon Weisbard produce a host of visual surprises. At key moments, very effective projections, combined with Jane Shaw's sound design, summon the variable weather and atmospheric conditions that make the explorers' journey difficult.

Shaw's admirable sound design also includes music evoking Hollywood's epic treatment of historical sagas comparable to the Powell expedition. The grandeur of that music is aligned with the anachronism of Backhaus's dialogue, the waggish qualities of Asta Bennie Hostetter's costumes, and the non-traditional casting of the play's cisgender white male characters. All these elements egg on the audience to reassess perspectives on the American past.

Some spectators, especially those uneasy in the post-Bruce-Jenner world, may feel Men on Boats is thumbing its theatrical nose at the time-honored assumptions of historians and Hollywood. Well, that's exactly what it's doing. But the smart money says a majority of playgoers will find this antic entertainment and its skeptical commentary on traditional historical story-telling bracing, insightful, and just plain fun.

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Men on Boats
Written by Jacklyn Backhaus
Directed by Will Davis
Cast: Good: Jocelyn Bioh (Hawkins), Hannah Cabell (OG Howland/Tsauwiat), Danielle Davenport (Hall), Danaya Esperanza (Seneca Howland/The Bishop), Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Sumner), Birgit Huppuch (Goodman/Mr. Asa), Elizabeth Kenny (Old Shady), Layla Khoshnoudi (Bradley), Kelly McAndrew (Powell), Kristen Sieh (Dunn)
Scenic Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Production Stage Managers: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Produced by Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb
At Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
From 7/20/16; opened 8/1/16; closing 8/14/16
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a July 30 press performance

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