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Playwrights Horizons

Men On Boats: Historical Fiction with Vitality and Insidious Humor


Inspired by the government sanctioned Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 which charted the Green and Colorado Rivers into Grand Canyon, Jaclyn Backhaus’s enormously imaginative, humor-peppered melodrama puts us among a group of men who endured hardship, hunger, loss, and life threatening challenges to produce the first cartography and descriptions of the area.

The Company

Of the ten who began, only Powell and five others reached journey’s end. One, having had enough, left earlier at an Indian Agency of his own volition and three were lost (assumed to be killed by Indians) when they abandoned camp sure they’d never make it. One of three 21’x 4’ oak-made boats was splintered. The fourth was smaller and made of pine. Named for Powell’s wife, it was equipped with a strap he could clutch with his left hand to maintain balance while standing on deck. We know what occurred from the naturalist’s published work.

The piece is cast entirely with women who lower their voices, walk, and stand eschewing feminine traits. None of this, I’m happy to report, feels exaggerated or false. To a person, the actors play it straight.

Kristen Sieh, Kelly McAndrew, Donnetta Lavinia Grays

Members of the group include, as they did originally, John Wesley Powell (Kelly McAndrew), an experienced rafter and subsequent professor who lost an arm in the Civil War; his brother Walter, here nicknamed Old Shady for childhood reasons, who sings the occasional spontaneous, barely tolerated ditty (Elizabeth Kenny) ; John C. Sumner (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) a rough-hewn professional guide; Oramel G. Howland (Hannah Cabbell) and brother Seneca Howland (Danaya Esperanza)- the former a printer and hunter, the latter a mountain man; hunter/trapper William H. Dunn (Kristen Sieh): “I don’t do omens, I do forethought”;  mountain man William R. Hawkins (Jocelyn Hioh) who acted as $1.50 a day cook; 19 year-old Andy Hall (Danielle Davenport) allowed along for rowing skills; George Y. Bradley (Layla Ksoshnoudi) who was present in exchange for an army discharge; and Frank Goodman (Birgit Huppuch), a British gentleman adventurer. None had whitewater experience.


Brigit Huppoch, Danielle Davenport, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Jocelyn Bioh

We learn about right-to-name rules and rituals (the playwright shows this as a credible thrill, also managing to insert a sentence in which the explorers summarily dismiss any previous Indian naming), observe resourceful acquisition of edibles (Goodman’s experience catching “fishies” is charming while Hawkins’s quick-witted kill of a snake actually startles), watch portage, cliff skimming, the loss of a boat and supplies, and rising tensions. Affinities become allegiances when things get tougher and men risk their lives for one another. One particularly harrowing deliverance is accomplished with a pair of pants! It’s a broad, well drawn picture studded with practical details and relationship nuance. Just wait for the wry Indians!

Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Kelly McAndew, and Kristen Sieh and the cast of MEN ON BOATS, Photo by Elke Young(1)

Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Kelly McAndew, Kristen Sieh

Men On Boats feels immersive. (No, the audience doesn’t actually participate.) Time spent navigating treacherous water is immensely vivid. “

Pull…Pull, almost there…One more time! and…Line Pull Pull…Almost to the- Clear! We’re out!…Clear…There!…Watch the Wall!…OH SHIT!” they all shout in trenchant unison, moving in tight units, swaying, turning, dipping, and tumbling as currents and rapids threaten survival.  Temporarily free of underlying danger, one shouts “Oooooo, I love it when there’s no rocks!” as if on a benign roller coaster.

Hand-held, two-sided boat bows simulate vessels. Aisles are selectively employed to great effect as are the hidden doorways of Arnulfo Maldonado’s evocative, three-sided photographic Set. And I’ve never ever seen rope put to such mercurial and creative stage use.

Danielle Davenport, Hannah Cabell, Layla Khoshnoudi, Jocelyn Bioh, Elizabeth Kenny

Company stand-outs:

Donnetta Lavinia Grays has crafted a fully formed, physical and emotional character with her laconic, deadpan, can-do Sumner.

Birgit Huppuch’s Goodman, replete with British accent, seems irritatingly chipper until we learn who and why he’s there, whereupon everything fits.

As embodied by Elizabeth Kenny, Old Shady is a bit slow, sweet, and doggedly loyal. Her songs feel as if she’s coming up with them for the first time.

Kristen Sieh is a natural whose thinking we see as clearly as Dunn’s brooding. Masculinity is aptly manifest.

Expedition leader Powell is admirably served by a focused Kelly McAndrew. The actor’s believable interpretation is calm, serious, watchful, authoritative, and fair. Even when in jeopardy, measured response stays in character.

I can’t imagine how Director Will Davis conceived what we saw out of what he read. This is a glass mountain climb with roaringly successful results.

Jane Shaw’s Sound Design, which features innumerable water attitudes seeming to envelop us, is highlighted by wonderfully corny Hollywood music accompanying pivotal moments.

Solomon Weisbard’s Lighting Design helps create innumerable mood shifts and curiously adds to geography.

I admit to not understanding Asta Bennie Hostetter’s Costume choices, many of which are better suited to saloon gambler dandies.

Photos by Elke Young
Opening: The Company

Playwrights Horizons & Clubbed Thumb present
Men On Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus
Directed by Will Davis
Playwrights Horizons’ Peter J. Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Through August 14, 2016