Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
2.5 out of 4
There are only a few pieces of theatre that manage to provide a visual that outshines the story being told. American Theater Company’s production of Men On Boats is one of those few. This makes this production both undisputedly interesting to watch and unimaginably uninteresting to actually think about. That is to say, the story being told, the story of the adventurers who discovered the Grand Canyon, is not particularly interesting and the script relies heavily on actors creating vivid characters and the director maintaining the audience’s attention with a stunning visual concept.
There is no question that director (and newly appointed ATC Artistic Director) Will Davis’ concept and execution is the star of the show. Asked to create tension from actors holding 2x4 planks to symbolize rowing, Davis goes beyond that to put together the most interesting moments of the play. Every moment spent inside of these unseen boats is spent pondering the life and death circumstances that these characters were put in. The beauty of Davis’ choreography wasn’t simply the precision and aggression that felt like constant motion and dodging danger, but how that led to a panic in the audience when that organization fell into chaos as soon as someone fell overboard or a boat crashed.
Unfortunately, the tension and excitement stopped whenever Davis’ choreography did. The script itself didn’t manage to find any pull or drive in the actual plot and instead relied heavily on the actresses being interesting enough to hold attention when they were standing around not talking about too much. The thing is, the cast members (all women or otherwise identified theatre artists playing men) were actually all very good in their individual performances. Kelli Simpkins and Kelly O’Sullivan deserve to be singled out since they do most of the heavy lifting in terms of actual, palpable tension between two characters, but all of the women in this cast offer fantastic performances.
But the flaw lies in when anyone on stage was asked to be at all earnest. The only consistent plot to follow, other than the journey itself, is the rivalry and eventual falling out between Simpkins and O’Sullivan. The issue there is that it never finds solid enough footing to build to the climax that is written. There were tiny spats throughout, but really nothing that says the two men couldn’t talk things through. I can’t fault the actors because I do think the bravado and self-assuredness that O’Sullivan brings to her character is exactly what it needs to be, but there’s just nothing there to earn the eventual rift. Without a solid plot, this play is essentially a character study of these men on this trip, and that just isn’t enough to hold interest.
By the end, it even felt like the design team was trying to overcompensate for the lack of build. William Boles’ set is essentially a shadow box set upstage allowing actors to climb in and up while playing with depth perception in a clever way. Off of this set, Brandon Wardell’s lights create the beautiful impression of stone walls that you can feel rise up around the actors as they venture further. The only qualm with the lights is that there are times that so much texture is being added to the stage that actor faces get a bit lost. Wardell and Boles combine with Davis to create a grandiose climax to the play that should have been dramatic and profound, but instead fell completely flat. In that moment, they left the script behind and the play suffered for it.
The common theme for this production was that it continuously nailed the theatrical and symbolic aspects but missed on any heartfelt, honest moments. There’s no question, after leaving the theatre that Will Davis has an incredibly strong vision for the future of American Theater Company. There’s also no question that his vision will bring about visually stunning productions. The lingering question is whether the heart of the show will meet the flash of the production.
Men on Boats plays at American Theater Company now through February 12, 2017. Tickets are available by calling the ATC box office at 773-409-4125 or visiting www.atcweb.org. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.