Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review of Men on Boats at American Theater Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Men on Boats. It was by Jaclyn Backhaus. It was directed by Will Davis. It was about a group of men led by John Wesley Powell (Kelli Simpkins) who were trying to travel through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. They were trying to get their entire crew to survive and come with them, but over time they broke into separate groups. It is about problems of patriotism, where the men go emotionally and literally, and challenging friendships. In this production, and I think all the other productions, the men were played by women or non-binary people. This play sends a strong feminist message even though it is not about feminism or women. I thought this was a great show. I found it hilarious but also very touching and exciting.

I don't think I've ever laughed as much as I did during this show. One of my favorite moments was when Sumner (Arti Ishak) finds a snake. Of course, if you find a snake crawling on you, you aren't going to be happy, but the way that she reacted was so over the top that it was hilarious. The other explorers see it and they try to get away from it as soon as possible but then the cook Hawkins (Stephanie Shum) starts smacking it repeatedly with a pan. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in my life. The Howland brothers, O.G. (Avi Roque) and Seneca (SaraĆ­ Rodriguez), were hilarious but still terrifying. They were very funny, but they didn't really seem to care about the other members of the group, which is a problem on a expedition that is ninety-nine percent teamwork. O.G. would keep saying he had to go to the bathroom, but he was really going and stealing tobacco. It was hilarious that no one seemed to notice except Hawkins. Frank Goodman (Erin Barlow) was more like baggage on the expedition than a real explorer, but he was hilarious baggage for the audience. I don't know if he belonged on the American expedition, since he was British, and he was just out there because he wanted to do some exploring because he was rich. There was a moment where he was politely freaking out about the Howland brothers smoking while they were portaging and that was hilarious. The Howland brothers were also hilarious because they were so laid-back and cool. One of the boats they had, The Maid of the Canyon, only had two people, Hawkins and Hall (Lawren Carter), but it was the party boat. And whenever someone would say party boat, they would break into a song and dance which was hilarious. There were so many modern references. There was also a time when they had lost the whiskey but when they found it again they were so happy that the lights (by Brandon Wardell) all went rogue and they started doing this strange slow-motion mosh pit of dancing and holding up a giant jug of whiskey.

There was a hilarious and touching moment where Bradley (BrittneyLove Smith), who was the youngest crew member, he was going up a mountain with Powell, and Powell almost fell and then Bradley took off his pants and threw them over to him to use as a rope. He was using the slightest amount of effort he could possibly do and trying to look heroic. It was hilarious and touching because Bradley would do anything for their commander, but even though he was trying to seem manly he still seemed very young and adorable. The entire time I just wanted to get up and give Bradley a hug. It is also really funny how excited he was about everything. Like when they were going to the waterfalls he just screamed out at the top of his lungs "I'm nineteen!" even though that had nothing to do with the situation that was happening at the time. He starts out being in the same boat with Old Shady (Lauren Sivak). They are pretty much polar opposites; Old Shady is probably the least enthusiastic person you'll ever meet...except when he sings his ballads. By the way, what were those ballads? I think he sang one about the snake that he murdered, but it is hard to tell. And every single time everyone would pay as close attention as they could, but really not care. Except for his brother Powell, who is really into all that for some strange reason.

Everyone was very obsessed with naming things after themselves, especially William Dunn (Kelly O'Sullivan). I think they should have found out more about the place and not just taken everything for their own because those things might have already had names given to them by Native Americans. He seemed to think that he was the most experienced person on this expedition. But even though he was flawed, I still thought the character was lovable. He and Powell were frenemies because they had different opinions but they still worked together most of the time. The play does not just make fun of these flawed, privileged, white male characters. It shows you the good things about them too. Like William Dunn wanting to name the places shows that he is actually invested in the mapping project, not just wanting an adventure. Powell, even though he kind of left all his friends in the dust and took all the credit for himself, on the way through the Grand Canyon he was a successful and inspirational leader to most of them. I don't think the play thinks wanting to explore is stupid. I think the play thinks the characters could do the same things in a way that hurts less people.

I really liked the action sequences; I thought they were really cool. I thought it brought a lot of excitement to the show. They would get in the boats, which were like hinged signs that had the names of the boats on them. They would swerve and do all the things the actual boats would do, but just using people. It made each of those scenes even more exciting and gave them a lot more tension. Whenever the actual boat would break, the sign would break apart. I thought that that was really cool.

People who would like this show are people who like naming things after yourself, whiskey mosh pits, and rescue pants. I thought this was a really fun show. I think that literally everyone should see it. I would see it thousands of times if I could. I absolutely loved it. It was hilarious and amazing.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

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