It felt appropriately poetic that I saw the exquisite Playwrights Horizons and Clubbed Thumb co-production of Men on Boats this past Friday.
Jaclyn Backhaus’s hilarious and ultimately very moving play tells the story of the first government sanctioned expedition into the vast West, a group of men who will try to navigate their way through the perils of the “Big” Canyon. However the story, directed with a celebratory rambunctiousness by Will Davis, is told by a cast of ten of the downtown theatre scene’s female stars. That these women were exploring a strange frontier was injected with greater gravity as, less than 24 hours before, Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the country at large also began their journey into exploring the new unknowns of an historically male frontier.
It’s 1869. The one-armed General Powell and his men are afloat: several hunters, a cook, a mapmaker, an Englishman who’s overly excited to be there, and an eager nineteen-year-old who’s just lost his mother on his first expedition. Their destination is the other side of the Grand Canyon. But how long will it take to get there? As the morale, rations, and number of boats deplete at competing rates, so does the group’s commitment to reaching their goal.
Backhaus’s writing is gorgeous. Perfectly paced jokes, melancholy and hopeful monologues, and vividly conjured characters run amok to create a thrilling portrait of this group of men struggling to continue down river without any knowledge of what’s beyond the bend after the upcoming set of rapids. The writing really comes to its most vivid life in the second half of the play, when the men start to lose some of their sanity, bit by bit. The vulnerability that Backhaus pulls out of these characters as they become more unfamiliar with their surroundings is a treat for the audience. When one of the men, previously as sturdy as a brick wall, confronts one of his biggest fears deep within the Canyon, the result is a riotous glimpse at the man behind the curtain. Where the play lost me, though only momentarily, was in a running joke about how concerned the men are for one of their prized ration of bacon.
Davis’s direction and staging are, to put it plainly, flawless. Using only Solomon Weisbard’s prairie lighting, Jane Shaw’s sound design and the physicality of the actors, he takes us over the crests and troughs of rapids raging their way down the Colorado river, across the cliff walls, and onwards to the satisfying denouement. Without water, Davis is freed from a literal reading of the play, and as such, takes his audiences on a delirious, whiskey-fueled trip across the Wild West.
What should be stressed about the all-female cast is that this is not cartoon or drag. Their work immediately makes us forget the gender of the performers. As Powell, Kelly McAndrew leads the crew as a compelling and powerful leader. Her assistant, Dunn, as portrayed by Kristen Sieh, is a young explorer craving a legacy. As Powell’s older brother, Old Shady, Elizabeth Kenny gives us a macabre character still struggling in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Howland Twins, OG and Seneca (Hannah Cabell and Danaya Esperanza) serve us “don’t have time for this shit” realness; they’re here for one purpose, and one purpose only. And then there’s Sumner. I could watch Donnetta Lavinia Grays read take-out menus for six hours and still find her performance compelling. Her Sumner, a mysterious adventurer who sleeps in trees, is fascinating. She plays into her character’s closed-off personality to wonderful effect, and earns every belly laugh the audience gives her. Rounding out this pitch-perfect ensemble are Jocelyn Bioh, Danielle Davenport, Birgit Huppuch, and Layla Khoushnoudi, who, in their supporting roles, are all open and honest with each other and the audience.
I rode the train home afterwards wondering: What if the Grand Canyon had first been successfully explored by women? Would we still, in 2016, be teetering on the edge of a cliff praying that we’re not pushed off into the presidency of a reality star who promises Greatness? Would we still, in 2016, be fighting for the rights of people who aren’t men? Would we still, in 2016, be wondering what went wrong?
Men on Boats is on at Playwrights Horizons until 14th August 2016. Click here for more information.