August 13, 2016

"Men On Boats" is a Rip-Roaring Ride

"Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" asks the final line of the musical Hamilton. It, of course, famously answers its own question by having black and brown actors play the Founding Fathers as it tells the story of the founding of this country. And this summer a number of other plays are similarly recasting and reclaiming history for people previously excluded from it.

Butler, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (click here to see that review) is a Civil War story whose hero is a charismatic and sophisticated runaway slave. Alice in Black and White, a bio-play about the pioneering photographer Alice Austen that ends a brief run at the 59E59 Theaters tomorrow, puts front and center the lesbian identity of its namesake, which had, until recently, been downplayed in her story (click here to read more about her).

And now we have the delightful Men On Boats, an account of the Powell Expedition of 1869 that marked the first time white men charted the entirety of the Grand Canyon. But in this version, all 10 of the men on the expedition are played by women.

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus' expedition members are the usual motley crew of male archetypes that include the stalwart leader, a young hothead, the eager neophyte, an egghead know-it-all, a prissy Brit, and an old-timer with true grit. And Ásta Bennie Hostetter's witty costumes totally nail each type.

But, as Backhaus and director Will Davis imagine it, the women playing these characters don't try to act like men. Instead, they show how women might have developed their own style of swagger and bravado if history had given them the same freedom to behave as men have always had (click here to read a Q&A with the playwright).

The actresses playing these roles clearly relish the chance to flex those muscles and although some are better than others (shout-outs to Jocelyn Bioh, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Elizabeth Kenny and Layla Khoshnoudi) they're all good and it's really great to see such diversity among them in terms of ethnicity, age and even body type.

The play is larded with wit that doesn't make fun of the idea of women playing men but of the ways in which any group of people can eventually get on one another's nerves. The dialog—some of it period-specific, some of it intentionally anachronistic—is a hoot.

And Davis' direction is just as entertaining. The set is bare-bones, with video projections providing the majestic scenery the explorers encountered, small wooden prows standing in for the canoes in which they traveled and stylized choreography mimicking the perils of the journey as they go over waterfalls and navigate the twisty rapids of the Colorado River.

Only six men completed the journey. And at is heart, Men On Boats is a reminder, as Hamilton is, of the courage it took to make this country great—and will take to keep it so for future generations who look back to tell the story of our time.

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