Review: Men on Boats (American Theater Company)

| January 12, 2017

Lawren Carter, Stephanie Shum and Avi Roque star in Men on Boats, American Theater Co           

Men on Boats

Written by Jaclyn Backhaus
American Theater Co., 1909 W. Byron (map)
thru Feb 12  |  tix: $38  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


Flawed story-telling hampers potentially ground-breaking piece


Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, American Theater Company Chicago 4

American Theater Company presents
Men on Boats

Review by Catey Sullivan

As commentary on the fact that gender is a spectrum and not a binary, Men on Boats is sporadically effective. As a retelling of the epic, death-defying 1869 voyage of John Wesley Powell, it’s tediously ineffective. And as a piece of heavily physical theater, the American Theater Company production is occasionally striking, but not particularly ground -breaking or original.

Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, American Theater Company Chicago 1Directed by Will Davis, Men on Boats is something of a coming out party for the artistic director of ATC. The piece is the first that Davis has helmed as the head of the theater company. Davis succeeds PJ Paparelli, who died in 2015 in a car accident overseas. Davis is relatively new to Chicago, but he has steered Men on Boats three times over the past two years. In 2015 and again last summer, Davis directed Clubbed Thumb productions of Jacyln Backhaus’ alternately slap-sticky and somber ensemble piece.

Pointedly, there are neither boats nor cis-men in Men on Boats. The boats are hinged planks gripped with varying degrees of energy as the expedition makes it way over rocks, rapids and waterfalls. As for the guys: The macho types usually associated with the taming of the American west are depicted by a 10-person cast of cis-women, transmen, and gender fluid actors whose mere presence is a marvelous and vivid reminder that gender is a spectrum, not a binary. Kudos to The Chicago Inclusion Project for casting the project. If only the cast had a project that wasn’t so troubled.

Filtering the story of Powell’s intrepid crew through an ensemble that doesn’t fit the stereotype of a frontiersman is an excellent premise. History classes are larded with the testosterone-fueled, larger-than-life adventures of Lewis and Clark and the cowboys, miners and mountain men who followed them. Strip the macho myth of rugged individualism from the creation myth fostered by Manifest Destiny, and you’ve got a potentially ground-breaking and eye-opening piece of storytelling.

But the storytelling is flawed in Man on Boats, for two significant reasons. First, Davis’ direction results in a production that doesn’t seem to know what it is. The cast veers from the extremes of low-brow slapstick caricature to deadly serious earnestness more times than you can count. The tone is wildly uneven – at one point, you feel like you’re watching “The Three Stooges on Boats.” The next, you’re in the center of a bleakly humorless tragedy. Obviously it’s not necessary to stick strictly to one or the other – but in Men on Boats, the disparity doesn’t deepen or enhance the story, it merely makes it seem sloppy and ill-conceived.

Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, American Theater Company Chicago 5

Throughout, the cast exaggerates nearly every word and gesture: In the land of low-brow comedy, the actors all put hold up signs announcing the yuks. When things get dire, everyone seems a millisecond away from literally ripping their hair out in abject devastation. Neither extreme works effectively. The exaggerated wacky antics and wide-eyed lamentations quickly become shrill and tiresome, and rob the play of both its potential humor and any serious dramatic impact it could have.

The second problem lies with Backhaus’ script. She draws some of her dialogue from the journal Powell kept as he made the perilous voyage down the Green and Colorado Rivers. The trip took him and his crew deep into wilderness unmapped by white people, and was fraught with catastrophes. Boats capsized, men nearly drowned, crucial stores of bacon were lost to the raging waters. Starvation and death hovered in the spray along every last foot of the rivers wild.

Powell published his journal in 1875, and it quickly became a classic in the annals of exploration literature. But by quoting only snippets of the now-dated document, Backhaus fails to get to the heart of the document. Instead of a riveting adventure tale, Powell’s words become ridiculous. The issue goes back to delivery: As Powell, Kelli Simpkins instills the words with a stilted, decorous formality that almost sounds mocking. It’s as if we’re hearing a parody of an explorer’s journal rather than an authentic document.

Kelly O'Sullivan, Kelli Simpkins and Arti Ishak in Men on Boats, American Theater Chicago

Davis has his cast in similar straits throughout, shaping an ensemble that goes broad and loud when less would be far more effective, strutting and manspreading and growling with hyper-masculine affectation from start to finish. When things become genuinely death-defying – for example, when Powell finds himself clinging by his fingernails to a cliff – Davis has the cast go for laughs rather than drama, making potentially intense scenes sophomorically silly. When the crew, on the verge of starvation, begs for sustenance from a pair of Utes, the Native Americans inexplicably speak in a tone that’s a jarring mix between Valley Girl and robot.

The most successful scenes in Men on Boats are when the crew is on the water. Davis’ choreography captures the grace and the heart-pounding danger of people trying to move as one through a deadly, maze of rocks and swells.

The boats themselves are rather ingenious. Hinged planks merely suggest prows, but somehow also manage to give the impression of fully-formed vessels. William Boles’ set design is a simple yet effective depiction of the vast, unknown territory the men venture deeper and deeper into as they travel west. Miles Polaski’s original music is richly cinematic, a soundscape worthy of an epic.

There’s power in the image of women working together to ensure each other’s survival, all the while refusing to be categorized in terms of traditional gender norms. Unfortunately, that power is too often buried far below the swells in Men on Boats.

Rating: ★★½

Men on Boats continues through February 12th at American Theater, 1909 W. Byron (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $38, and are available by phone (773-409-4125) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 1 hour 40 minutes, includes an inter mission)

Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, American Theater Company Chicago 1

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Kelli Simpkins (John Wesley Powell), Kelly O’Sullivan (William Dunn), Arti Ishak (John Colton Sumner), Lauren Sivak (Old Shady), BrittneyLove Smith (Bradley), Avi Roque (O.G. Howland), Sarai Rodriquez (Seneca Howland), Erin Barlow (Goodman), Lawren Carter (Hall), Stephanie Shum (Hawkins), Kona Burks, Emily Marso, Tiffany Williams, Ashley Hicks (understudies).

behind the scenes

Will Davis (director, artistic director), Chicago Inclusion Project (casting), William Boles (scenic design), Melissa Ng (costume design), Brandon Wardell (lighting design), Miles Polaski (sound design and composition), Jamie Karas (props), Katie Klemme (stage manager). Alex Rhyan (technical director), Alicia Hynes (production manager), Michael Brosilow (photographer)

Lawren Carter, Stephanie Shum and Avi Roque star in Men on Boats, American Theater Co


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Category: 2017 Reviews, American Theater Company, Catey Sullivan, Video, YouTube

Comments (1)

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  1. NealR says:

    While I often agree with this reviewer, I think she really “missed the boat” on this one! I saw the first performance of “Men On Boat” last Friday, and except for a few issues one would expect in a preview I thought it was fantastic!

    I learned so much, laughed so much, and (in the final half-hour) had several moments of tremendous emotion (as when Dunn and two others leave) and almost epiphanic [is that a word?!] aesthetics (such as when the expedition is first swallowed-up by the high canyon walls containing colors few humans have ever seen, or later when they experience — and cherish — sunshine as never before).

    And all week I’ve been thinking of the great lesson of this story — one which almost might feel contrived if it weren’t true — that often things are indeed darkest just before the dawn… and that the temptation to give up on our dreams because we’ve been at it too long, and instead take what seems to be an easier path in life, can sometimes lead to tragic results.

    I’d never even heard of the Powell expedition before, and am so glad that the playwright and everyone at ATC has brought it to my attention… and in such a profound way.

    Regarding the above review, everyone is of course entitled to his or her opinion (so long as it it genuine and not primarily based on preconceived notions), but I hope anyone who is leaning against seeing this production will get other viewpoints first. (For example, I think Chris Jones’s largely positive review in the Chicago Tribune is pretty much spot-on, except for not mentioning [perhaps to avoid being spoilery] that there are so many dramatic moments near the end.)