Monday, June 22, 2015

Men on Boats

In Clubbed Thumb's production of Jaclyn Backhaus's extraordinary Men on Boats, perfectly directed by Will Davis, it is 1869, and ten men are canoeing down the Colorado River in search of the "big canyon." They are in many ways a familiar bunch: the laconic hunter, the effete Englishman, the quirky old man (think Walter Brennan), the young man on his first adventure, the brilliant map-maker, and so on. They are led by a brave, stubborn one-armed captain. Their adventures and misadventures echo those of dozens of movies, old and new. No cliché goes unturned.

This might be business as usual, except that the actors are all women. They play the men as men, with no sense of drag or winking at the audience. They commit! They are a brilliant bunch of performers, and they nail the male clichés, all of which become sparkling new in their hands. Macho posturing, half-whispered voices, plaintive campfire songs, jostling for command, and other manly activities and traits all demand a fresh look when played by these amazing women. That the cast is multi-racial adds another layer of built-in commentary.

Both the writing and direction of Men on Boats are smart and well-calibrated. The show reveals the sheer stupidity of some of our definitions of masculinity, but it also honors comaraderie, determination, and loyalty. The many laughs are earned honestly. There is no lazy work here. The combination of satire and sincerity makes Men on Boats more than just a take-off, giving it a heft of its own.

Backhaus's writing is particularly effective when some of the men approach local Native Americans for help. She has found a tone that allows us to laugh wholeheartedly at the discussion without ever forgetting the horrors of white men's treatment of Native Americans.

Another factor distinguishing Men on Boats is its fabulous physicality. The men row, shoot rapids, fall overboard, dodge whirlpools, and generally make their way down hundreds of miles of river. This is all represented by movement, much of it in unison, that is evocative, impressive, and beautiful. And funny! This is a non-musical that deserves an award for choreography.

The costumes, which efficiently and attractively define the characters, are by Ásta Bennie Hostetter. The effective set and lighting are by Arnulfo Maldonado and Solomon Weisbard, respectively. The sound design, which adds a great deal of texture and emotion to the proceedings, is by Jane Shaw.

The cast members are Jess Barbagallo, Becca Blackwell, Hannah Cabell, Danielle Davenport, Danaya Esperanza, Donetta Lavinia Grays, Birgit Huppuch, Layla Khoshnoudi, Kelly McAndrew, and  Kristen Sieh. Each and everyone makes an important contribution to this wonderful show.

Men on Boats is playing on East 3rd Street at the Wild Project through June 29th. Tickets are only $18 and can be purchased here. Go!

(six row, press ticket) 

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