ComedyDramaNew YorkOff-BroadwayReview

Men on Boats – Playwrights Horizons, New York

Writer: Jaclyn Backhaus

Director: Will Davis

Reviewer: Jamie Rosler

It’s 1869 in the new American West. Captain Powell and his men are traversing the Green and Colorado Rivers on the first ever government-sanctioned expedition to map, name, and claim the land from Wyoming down to the Grand Canyon (or rather, an as-yet-unnamed canyon of impressive size). Through trials that are emotionally draining and often life threatening, this brave crew soldiers on, defining what it means to be a part of this “country founded on newness.” In the Clubbed Thumb production of Men on Boats, this crew is played by a diverse cast of talented women.

Dressed in era-appropriate costumes, designed by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, and surrounded by the sounds of rushing waters and the towering faces of mountainsides and cliff faces (sound and set designed by Jane Shaw and Arnulfo Maldonado, respectively), the cast speaks in a language that flows seamlessly between modern speech and 19th century lingo. The potentially jarring juxtapositions of language and costume, of gender, race, and age, are presented ingeniously by director Will Davis and this phenomenal ensemble cast, all of wo do a stellar job bringing Jaclyn Backaus’ play to life.

The staging is simple, and yet takes full advantage of the space and layout of the theatre. The characters are well defined and exquisitely portrayed. Humor is present throughout, and employed deftly during the play’s darker moments.

Theatre with social commentary has the potential to feel preachy and heavy handed, but Men on Boats is written and produced in such a way as to leave all of the commentary in the hands of the audience, who are also free to simply enjoy a well-made play. Of course, in a production about an all-male, all-white pioneering expedition in 1800s America, with an all-female mixed race cast, one has to be voluntarily thick to not allow themselves a reflective, intellectual response.

During such a fraught time in American politics, as we are now in, a production with such simultaneous depth and light-heartedness is practically required viewing.

Runs until 21 August 2016

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The American team is under the editorship of Adrienne Sowers. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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