MEN ON BOATS
June 29, 2015
As late as 1869, the Colorado River was still uncharted. That year John Wesley Powell, hired by the U.S. government, set off with nine men and four open boats to explore that river and the Grand Canyon. The original group was whittled down to six, as one pleasure seeker, a British aristocrat, chose land over water, and two months later, three more defected. The marvelous production “Men On Boats” is based on Powell’s journals of this expedition, published as “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.”
After months (compressed into 92 minutes) of navigating rocks and rapids, surrounded by a 3 wall projection of the Grand Canyon; suddenly, six panels of the rear wall drop to reveal blue sky. The cast jumps for joy, firing off a shot to announce their triumphant exit from the Canyon. They wait for a return shot from the three who stayed on land. They hear nothing. Dumbfounded, the six stand motionless, digesting what they had achieved, and what they escaped. Their stillness pushes us to imagine being in their skin.
Catching this second to last of 10 performances of “Men on Boats” restored my love of live theatre, the inventions necessitated by a low-budget, and the mysterious bravura of standing in second position, ala John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and all the other macho stars of the Silver Screen. This cast makes us feel their essence, their predicament, excitement, and practically guides us to smell the mountain air. Given the gender play in this production, what a way to celebrate the Supreme Court affirmation for equality and the day of NYC’s Gay Pride Parade.
This production is so much fun, and so imaginative that little separation seems to exist between the actors and audience. The writing by Jaclyn Backhaus, as developed by Clubbed Thumb, is inspired; the all female cast, each distinct characters, exude a sexy swagger; the production elements: scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Asta Bennie Hostetter, lighting design by Solomon Weisbard, and sound by Jane Shaw, are stellar. But, perhaps, the most kudos should be thrown to the director Will Davis. A young transgender, Davis was originally trained as a ballet dancer and dances now with The Ballez, a queer ballet company in Brooklyn. His/her choreography makes us feel the thrill of riding the rapids, as the cast hurdles in unison to the left and, then, the right, the chemistry between the men, the romance of the unknown, and the real dangers of starving. Better yet, Davis is shaping a new kind of “cool,” one that's physical, humor-laced, ironic.
Walt Disney tried to capture Powell’s story in 1960 with a feature “Ten Who Dared.” “According to Allmovie, critics consistently rate this as one of the worst movies made by Disney.” That “Men On Boats,” performed in a tiny converted garage on 195 East 3rd Street, soars is testament to the power of live theatre.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Deirdre Towers