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BWW Review: Jaclyn Backhaus' MEN ON BOATS Is A Pioneering Enterprise

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It's the kind of historic event worthy of a theatrical spectacle that might have been produced on the New York stage for an insane amount of money in the years shortly after it occurred, featuring an onstage river, waterfall effects and awe-inspiring recreations of rocky canyon vistas.

Kristen Sieh, Kelly McAndrew and Donnetta Lavinia Grays
(Photo: Elke Young)

But in the financially prudent world of non-profit Off-Broadway theatre, the imagination and wit involved with the Clubbed Thumb and Playwrights Horizons co-production of director Will Davis' pocket-sized mounting of Jaclyn Backhaus' MEN ON BOATS is well-suited to provide an enjoyable 95-minute excursion.

Presented in off-the-cuff story theatre style MEN ON BOATS takes its cue from the 1869 government-sanctioned expedition headed by John Wesley Powell to ride through the Green and Colorado rivers to become the first white people to explore the base of what would eventually be known as the Grand Canyon.

A Civil War veteran who lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, Powell published his journal of the three-month long adventure, which was playwright's source. It's a story of glory-seeking, adventure-hungry, Manifest Destiny-believing white men who are written by Backhaus to be played by a diverse ensemble of ten women.

As Powell, Kelly McAndrew makes a spirited entrance, as if posing for a portrait, with a world-beating expression of pride and gumption. Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado has the crew racing across the water in four hand-held representations of vessels, with terse, descriptive dialogue and solidly choreographed physicality giving the audience vivid visualizations of the dangers they encounter.

Danielle Davenport, Hannah Cabell, Layla Khoshnoudi,
Jocelyn Bioh and Elizabeth Kenny
(Photo: Elke Young)

But it's when MEN ON BOATS takes to the land when the story expresses its heart, mostly through the uneasy relationship between Powell and his second-in-command, the cautious and sensitive Dunn (Kristen Sieh). A scene between the two where they discuss the requirements to have a natural formation named after yourself could be played for ridicule at their arrogance, but Backhaus finds a tender empathy men like these expressing a need to be remembered.

There is no apparent commentary or lampooning involved with having the excellent company - which also includes Hannah Cabell, Danielle Davenport, Danaya Esperanza, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Birgit Huppuch, Layla Khoshnoudi, Jocelyn Bioh and Elizabeth Kenny - playing their male characters except, perhaps, that it's rare to see woman play these kinds of roles unless the characters are meant to be seen as a feminist pioneers breaking glass ceilings.

And by simply giving women the opportunity to play these roles without it having to mean something makes MEN ON BOATS a pioneering venture itself.


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