Ten explorers. Four boats. One Grand Canyon. 'Men on Boats' tells the true(ish) history of an 1869 expedition, when a one-armed captain and a crew of insane yet loyal volunteers set out to chart the course of the Colorado River. After 2015's hit Off-Off Broadway mounting, Jaclyn Backhaus's play transfers to Playwrights Horizons for a limited engagement.
"Kudos to Clubbed Thumb for originating this spirited and intelligent production of 'Men on Boats'. (The play began at the Wild Project as part of their 2015 Summerworks festival). 'Men on Boats' is a finely-tuned adventure that transports you back to a time when the wonders of discovery still existed and heroes/heroines were the backbone of a nation." Full Review
"A hilarious and ultimately very moving play…Backhaus’s writing is gorgeous. Perfectly paced jokes, melancholy and hopeful monologues, and vividly conjured characters run amok to create a thrilling portrait of this group of men…Davis’s direction and staging are, to put it plainly, flawless…Without water, Davis is freed from a literal reading of the play, and as such, takes his audiences on a delirious, whiskey-fueled trip across the Wild West." Full Review
“Powell’s classic tale of chills, thrills, and spills...would seem unlikely fodder for a stage play, given its potential technical obstacles. That didn’t stop playwright Backhaus and director Will Davis from creating this arrestingly theatricalized version...Davis’s imaginative staging uses sharply choreographed movement to suggest all the dangers the men confront...‘Men on Boats’ is an ensemble piece in which all the actors deserve applause for bringing their colorful characters to life.” Full Review
"There's no attention drawn to gender in this boisterous new comedy, imaginatively directed down to the punctuation by Will Davis. 'Men on Boats' uses the lens of the present to explore a story from our shared cultural past. The result is kind of ingenious...This perfect 10-member ensemble perform their roles with laserlike precision. It's their skill, and the tug-of-war between the old and the new, that makes 'Men on Boats' such refreshing, enjoyable theater." Full Review
"An enormously imaginative, humor-peppered melodrama…To a person, the actors play it straight…It’s a broad, well-drawn picture studded with practical details and relationship nuance…'Men On Boats' feels immersive. Time spent navigating treacherous water is immensely vivid…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." Full Review
"It's a smart, funny, poignant meditation on gender and historical memory, speaking as convincingly to our own time as any drama set in the present day…The distance between those macho white explorers and the racially diverse group of women playing them turns the performance into a study in learned male behaviors. It's hilarious, but also pointed, as Backhaus shows us the link between the pressures of white masculinity and the drive for territorial conquest." Full Review
"The potentially jarring juxtapositions of language and costume, of gender, race, and age, are presented ingeniously by Davis and this phenomenal ensemble cast, all of whom do a stellar job bringing Backaus’ play to life...Theatre with social commentary has the potential to feel preachy and heavy-handed, but 'Men on Boats' is written and produced in such a way as to leave all of the commentary in the hands of the audience, who are also free to simply enjoy a well-made play." Full Review
“The imagination and wit involved with the production of director Will Davis' pocket-sized mounting of Jaclyn Backhaus' ‘Men on Boats’ is well-suited to provide an enjoyable 95-minute excursion...It's when ‘Men on Boats’ takes to the land when the story expresses its heart...There is no apparent commentary or lampooning involved with having the excellent company playing their male characters except, perhaps, that it's rare to see woman play these kinds of roles.” Full Review
"The rationale for casting an ensemble of actresses to enact Major John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Colorado River expedition eludes me. But as penned by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Will Davis, 'Men On Boats' is off-the-canyon-walls funny. A joint Off Broadway production of Clubbed Thumb and Playwrights Horizons, the show combines the playful inventiveness of the former with the theatrical discipline of the latter. Paddle or portage your own boat to the theater — but get there." Full Review
"Playwright Backhaus gender-flips her hardy crew and asks director Davis to stage the impossible: vessels barreling over waterfalls and hairsbreadth escapes from drowning. Silly? Sure. Thrilling? Oh, yes...Although Backhaus’s sly inventory of male weakness can grow repetitious after an hour or so, the cast is a dream team of experimental pros and fresh faces, mining the pathos and genuine heroism of the story...'Men' has simply the best acting ensemble Off Broadway right now." Full Review
“Backhaus seems to have little interest in Major Powell. Her main interest is in telling a tale of high theatricality, and heightening every heroic, mock-heroic and cud-spitting masculine affectation by having her backwoodsman played by talented, non-male cast…The magic comes from the writing, the direction—on an all-but-empty stage with five upstage doors and some projections—and the cast…’Men on Boats’ makes a briskly breezy evening.’” Full Review
"The actresses playing these roles clearly relish the chance to flex those muscles and although some are better than others 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...And Davis' direction is just as entertaining." Full Review
"Director Will Davis helms the onstage foray into the unknown with a steady yet agile hand...Movement is a key element of the adventure’s enactment and plays a large part in its left-handed appeal…Davis has assembled a top-notch design team…The cast is up for a good time and delivers one to the audience. Performances are italicized but only slightly; no one goes overboard…It’s the ensemble that stands out, more than any one performer." Full Review
"The acting is, for the most part, natural and comfortable. And, as a result, the situations and the dialogue are often really hilarious...The play and its players do a fine job of commenting frequently on American heteronormative masculinity as a sociocultural construct. This is all the more impressive since the direction and the cast's interpretations never get mean, snarky, or cheap…Lags a little near the end, but the conclusion dispenses with the jokiness and is suddenly, strangely moving." Full Review
"These 'men' are back and are funnier than ever…When I glanced at the synopsis, it didn’t strike me as the stuff of gripping theater. Boy! Was I wrong. Director Will Davis keeps the action as brisk as the rapids themselves with the help of Backhaus’ rollicking script…For theater lovers awaiting the fall season, 'Men on Boats' will 'tide' you over until the busy season resumes. For casual theatergoers, it will be equally as enjoyable." Full Review
"It’s a tricky balancing act: The anachronistic dialogue and implicit gender commentary keep raising issues the dialogue does not resolve, or even address. That’s probably a good thing, because too much earnest issue-mongering would surely sink the delicate craft of the play before its 100 minutes were up. The terrific performances, amusingly detailed but seriously inhabited, also help to keep it afloat...The play lands in an unanticipated place of real, if fleeting, feeling." Full Review
“Backhaus, director Will Davis, and the cast are all operating in perfect coordination to create a brief (95-minute) evening of unremitting adventure and craziness...If the show has a flaw, it's the vaguest sense of potential pointlessness...When the journey is an absolute blast, it's okay if the destination is only 8 out of 10. ‘Men on Boats' has more than enough brilliance to keep it afloat." Full Review
"The play is a theatrical adventure, and, despite some rough patches, a rather lively and engaging one...The performances are appealing in their basic sincerity; they’re amusing, but far from caricatures...On the evening’s negative side, the playwright’s notion of inserting contemporary jargon into the story doesn’t really come off...'Men On Boats,' for all its inventiveness, works for the oldest and simplest of reasons: It draws us into its story; we want to know what happens next." Full Review
"An enjoyable mash-up of a send-up and an extended 'Saturday Night Live' sketch...Backhaus gives the historic events a contemporary flavor...The action of the play is somewhat repetitive unfortunately...But the send-up is pure fun and the audience is engaged and responsive. The cast is uniformly excellent...What is innovative in 'Men on Boats' is the play succeeding in not simply being a parody of an iconic post-Civil War Expedition, but a parody of itself. That creates the best humor." Full Review
“The top-notch cast, ably directed by Will Davis, recreates the rhythms of daily life, the rivalries, the insecurities, the dangers and defections the group endured...The play’s gimmick is that all the roles are played by women...For the first twenty minutes or so, this worked for me. However, the play soon became repetitive and cartoonish. It eventually seemed like a very long pointless skit that trivialized its subject and wore out its welcome." Full Review
"'Men on Boats' spends much of its time on verbal gags that don't quite land and multiple instances of cast members engaging in pretend acts of derring-do...These sequences, not terribly amusing in themselves, become wearying when spread out over an hour and forty minutes...The play finds a sharply satirical point of view only briefly...The rest of the time, however, 'Men on Boats' is a trip without a clear destination." Full Review
"Backhaus applies a wildly ribald sensibility to the saga...Under Davis's impeccable direction, the diverse all-women cast is superb. The actors are at their best in sequences, almost balletic in choreography, when the explorers run rapids and shoot down a massive waterfall...A majority of playgoers will find this antic entertainment and its skeptical commentary on traditional historical storytelling bracing, insightful, and just plain fun." Full Review
for a previous production "An extraordinary new play…What is so unusual about this terrific production—directed spectacularly by Will Davis, with ingenious scene design, lighting design, and sound design—is that you are transported to a distant time and place but the playwright uses contemporary language to communicate the actions and emotions of the ten explorers!...All of the members of the ensemble are great…This was one of the most thrilling stage productions I have seen this year." Full Review
for a previous production "If at times it meanders a bit, what we see on stage is almost always engaging...Director Davis is perhaps at his best in these 'travel' scenes–the excitement is palpable as the explorers navigate the often treacherous waters. But the scenes 'on land' are equally enjoyable...The entire ensemble is excellent...Whereas theatre that aims to be politically subversive often makes its points at the expense of the story, here we get both, and 'Men on Boats' is all the more wonderful because of it." Full Review
for a previous production "The production has compiled a cast of all women (and a couple of gender neutral artists) to play Powell's men and the result is magical. It never falls into a gimmick and eventually one forgets the concept and simply follows these characters. As the cast inhabits these men, it serves to bridge the gap between our contemporary world and their 19th century sensibilities, resulting in an interesting mash up...Backhaus's writing is contemporary, her dialogue is fiercely intelligent and funny." Full Review
See it if You want to have a great night of fun and laughs, see an original production with a superb ensemble of women playing men's roles in history!
Don't see it if You don't appreciate a good ensemble of all women playing male roles. Or if you're looking for a basic staged drama classic.
See it if You enjoy strong ensemble pieces. You enjoy design that feels low budget/creates space without using exact replicas of the items.
Don't see it if You're looking for a kitchen sink drama or typical Broadway staging.
See it if you are looking for a fun bit of history done with an all female cast of women actors who will knock u off ur feet!
Don't see it if You want true to form history lessons and don't want an all woman show.
See it if historical irony is your cup of tea & you like seeing a talented female ensemble in a fascinating script, well directed and choreographed.
Don't see it if you don't want to see a play where women play male characters or if you want realism. This is highly theatrical, wonderfully so.
See it if you enjoy new works that bring together layered performances, beautiful design, and original stage direction.
Don't see it if you are looking for a traditional theatrical experience with traditional casting and little ambition or humor.
See it if you're into seeing a brilliantly staged, deliciously acted & poignantly provocative show; one of my faves of 2015 beautifully remounted here
Don't see it if you prefer not to use your imagination when encountering a historical story; if you just can't with adventurous casting; if you need realism
See it if you want to see a gender-bending take on Powell's expedition. Ingeniously staged by Will Davis. Powerhouse ensemble acting! Do not miss.
Don't see it if your taste runs to the more conventional. Also, if you do not like historical plays.
See it if you want male dominated history to get reclaimed & repurposed by an all female ensemble. Crazy inventive staging. So so so clever.
Don't see it if you want big set pieces, men, history stripped of humor.
See it if potent, finely-tuned ensemble in a funny, poignant quest story about frontiers past and present. A feminist charmer than runs on delight
Don't see it if you're feeling fragile about the masculine mythos (although the critique is pretty understated)
See it if you like historical plays, play featuring a great all-female cast, humor, and fun.
Don't see it if you're not in the mood for a fun, funny show that both celebrates & pokes fun at the American myths of frontiersmen and exploration
See it if you want to see a play that's a combination of Hamilton, Peter and the Starcatcher, and SITP's Shrew all in one... and love Killer Ladies
Don't see it if you want a tame, old play that is known to you, and you don't want to see a play breaking some norms in a really sick way
See it if If an all-female performed retelling of an 1869 Colorado expedition sounds funny to you -- it is. It's the best possible version of that.
Don't see it if You prefer naturalistic staging, solid plot arcs (it's more episodic/sketch-like), OR you want overt gender commentary (it's more subtle).
See it if You enjoy seeing the gender switch with women playing all the male roles. It plays that fine line of being campy, but not over the top.
Don't see it if You do not like a play that is very loud. Your distracted by actors using the aisles of the theater, no matter how small the venue.
See it if History made easy and fun! See it if you like to laugh, see great acting, staging, direction and creativity. I thought it was wonderful.
Don't see it if you are bothered by a show's occasional wanderings or you dislike history being presented in a very humorous fashion.
See it if You like original theater that is well done, thought provoking and makes you think in new ways.
Don't see it if You are put off by gender reversals or making fun of male macho stereotypes.
See it if You like fresh, new take on history and theatrical forms. Care about progress and development of theater, LGBTQ, progressive, young, female
Don't see it if only like realism , are masogonystic, only looking for light entertainment
See it if you're a history buff, enjoy the Grand Canyon, like theatrical twists (the men are all played by women), like satire and inspired commentary
Don't see it if you can't wrap your head around gender switching satire and history bending, must have literal staging
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