by Joe Regan, Jr.
Every year, Clubbed Thumb, the resident theater company of Playwrights Horizon, presents a program of plays under the title Summerworks. This year, the 20th season, they presented, along with two other works (D Deb Debbie Deborah and Card and Gift), Men on Boats, an extraordinary new play by Jaclyn Backhaus, which is based upon John Wesley Powell’s Journals of his 1869 expedition (originally published as The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.)
What is so unusual about this terrific production—directed spectacularly by Will Davis, with ingenious scene design (a series of paneled doors with projections), lighting design by Solomon Weisbard, and sound design by Jane Shaw—is that you are transported to a distant time and place but the playwright uses contemporary language without anachronisms to communicate the actions and emotions of the ten explorers. The ten explorers are all played by women. Not since Tommy Tune’s legendary production of “The Club” (which featured, among others, Terri White and Joanne Beretta) have I seen a more diverse cast of women playing men so utterly authentically! And the physical action reminded me of Orson Welles’ Moby Dick, done on Broadway with Rod Steiger years ago, and, more recently, Peter and the Star Catcher.
As the men journey on their canoes using paddles to steer, we watch them careen and go over falls day and night, landing only occasionally on banks to rest and sleep. All of the members of the ensemble are great, but a few deserve special praise. As the obsessed one-armed Powell, Kelly McAndrew had a powerful attack that reminded me of the great Cherry Jones in her performance in Our Country’s Good and Moon For Misbegotten. When the others despair because of hunger and thirst, she is the lynchpin to force them on. Also giving strong performances are Kristen Sieh as Dunn, who gets to name the first sighted glacial wall, and eventually defects from the others to survive. And I cannot forget red-headed, bearish Becca Blackwell as the cook who at one point in the play convincingly kills a rattlesnake that is about to sink its fangs into another traveler. And, as his sidekick, in a Gabby Hayes-Al St. John character with terrific comic timing, Jess Barbagallo as Old Shady is consistently funny with his teethless jaw open throughout the action. But the entire cast is great and, in a contemporary adaptation to current stage productions, the company is color blind.
This was one of the most thrilling stage productions I have seen this year. It ended its run at Clubbed Thumb on June 29. There is talk of transferring it for a commercial run. Watch for it. It is one of the best plays and productions you will see this year and all those interested in adventure in the theater owe it to themselves to see it.