Chicago Theatre Review
A River Runs Through It
Men on Boats – American Theatre Company
Prepare to be bowled over with the brilliance of a production filled with firsts. This superb presentation, the company’s first of 2017, marks the regional premiere of Jaclyn Backhaus’ exhilarating, innovative new historical play. It also serves as Chicago’s introduction to Will Davis, the newly appointed artistic director of this, one of the city’s most respected Off Loop theatres. Mr. Davis has brought a new energy and excitement to ATC with this production which, incidentally, he also directed to critical and popular acclaim last year in New York. If this show is an indication of the caliber of excellence we can expect under Davis’ leadership, audiences will be lining up for tickets for every production.
Another first is the play itself. Ms. Backhaus has taken the factual information found within the published journals of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who led a government sanctioned expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers to the Grand Canyon. Powell is accompanied by nine men of various ages and skills, for the purpose of describing and mapping the region. The company works together, powering the four small boats that carry them down the raging rivers. But what makes this nineteenth century adventure story even more fascinating and intoxicating is that there’s not a single actual man in the cast.
Will Davis’ very physical production casts ten talented female and gender-reassigned actors in the roles of these men on boats. Historical stories are difficult to dramatize with any real authenticity. By employing strong, versatile, female actors, both the director and the playwright are saying, “Look, this is a play. We all know it’s not real life. This stage doesn’t have an actual river framed by rocky canyons. So let’s just take it a step further. Let’s use contemporary, relatable dialogue to tell this story from the 1800’s. And, while we’re at it, we’ll portray these strong, masculine characters by actors who aren’t actually men.” While these are actually women in drag, the play is never camp. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine this play being performed by an all male company.
But what Davis has assembled is the very definition of ensemble acting. While battling the elements and each other during this geological expedition, each character is unique and has his own story to tell. However, it’s the strength of the entire group that dominates. Each character, under Davis’ expert direction, is carefully exaggerated to create our preconceived notion of the swaggering, testosterone fueled heroic adventurer. But there’s also an empathy and a reverence for these men who were compelled to tackle the unknown, each motivated by personal reasons. The play also contains a lot of unexpected humor. And the production’s filled with both the physicality and stylized movement of a dance concert balanced by quiet, introspective soul-searching monologues and private conversations.
John Wesley Powell, the self-appointed leader and journalist of the expedition, is played with drive and bravado by the always excellent Kelli Simpkins. Powell’s rival for leadership during the journey is William Dunn, is portrayed with unexpected strength and guts by Kelly O’Sullivan. Powell’s right-hand man, John Colton Sumner, is played with fierce gumption by Arti Ishak. The company also includes the talented Lauren Sivak as stalwart, seemingly John Wayne-inspired Old Shady; BrittneyLove Smith, playing the optimistic, happy-go-lucky Bradley; Avi Roque and Sara Rodriguez as close brothers O.G. and Seneca Howland. British born explorer Frank Goodman is played with prim and proper reserve by Erin Barlow; cartographer Hall, executed with scientific relish and precision by Lawren Carter; and the expedition’s cook and inventory expert, Hawkins, is brought to exuberant life by talented Stephanie Shum.
The creative environment for this story is the result of William Boles’ awesome canyon scenic design, lit with dappled sunlight and shadowy moonlight by Brandon Wardell. Miles Polaski’s sound design and musical composition envelopes the 90-minute production with the perfect aural atmosphere, and Melissa Ng’s costume design creates the necessary details that remind us that we’re in the rugged, unexplored world of 1869. A special shoutout goes to Jamie Karas for his well-executed property design, especially his frightening rhumba of rattlesnakes.
This is a rousing, highly entertaining historical play with a river running through it. It’s unconventional and unpredictable, showcasing, not only the talents of its creative team and its ten-member ensemble cast, but of ATC’s brilliant, newly appointed artistic director, Will Davis. It’s fast-moving and filled with physicality and pathos, humor and heart, bringing a little-known real-life adventure to life for Chicago audiences. In short, this is a brilliant production to start the new year and one that should not be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 9-February 12 by American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the ATC box office at 773-409-4125 or going to www.atcweb.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.