Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Photo: The company of American Theater Company’s regional premiere of “Men on Boats,” directed by American Theater Company Artistic Director Will Davis. (Michael Brosilow)
Review: MEN ON BOATS at American Theater Company
By Erin Shea Brady
American Theater Company’s MEN ON BOATS by Jacyln Bauhaus is exactly the kind of theater that we should be producing and championing in Chicago right now.
This is the first production under new Artistic Director Will Davis (also the play’s director), who took a moment before the show to welcome the audience. In doing so, he set the tone for the whole experience and gave the audience much to look forward to from ATC in the future. He alluded to the company’s restructuring and spoke passionately about their emphasis on being welcoming and inclusive. Based on their work this year with the Chicago Inclusion Project, we can expect ATC to help set a new standard in Chicago for thoughtful genderfluid, color-conscious casting. I won’t be surprised if their emphasis on creating community moves beyond the casting process, into the audience and the company’s reach at it’s core. What followed Davis’ remarks was a play that is equal parts enjoyable, political and skillful — with a ton of heart.
It makes a statement before it starts. MEN ON BOATS features a genderfluid, racially normalized cast that, contrary to what its title implies, does not feature cisgendered white men. The challenge here is that I spent some of the play contemplating the title, less engaged in the actual work than I would like to have been. Such a purposeful statement can play out in a lot of different ways, the most direct of which comes late in the play, and I, maybe foolishly, found myself searching for a more straightforward payoff earlier on.
What becomes clear is that this is a story about ownership, credit, and, true to ATC’s mission, what it means to be an American. This is in question, in today’s society. We are a country built by immigrants, but the land was not ours when we claimed it. We stand by the values of freedom and equality, and have racism and sexism deeply embedded in our DNA. The play powerfully exposes our complicated, contradictory national identity. The “men” seem more engaged in the naming of things than the fact that the land they’re naming has already been discovered. And yet, among them, there is heart and ambition. These “men” are played with complexity — they aren’t simply a parody of privilege, though some of their behavior is ridiculous. In the end, this journey takes us somewhere powerful. I wish the script dug a little deeper a little sooner, but ultimately, the message comes through.
The ensemble is excellent, across the board. I’ve been a big fan of Kelli Simpkins since seeing THE KID THING at Chicago Dramatists in 2011. As Powell, she sets a tone that is as focused as it is funny. She brings some age and some stature to this cast, and is game to be a goofball which I always so appreciate. Lauren Sivak as Powell’s brother, Old Shady, is just wonderfully weird. BrittneyLove Smith’s performance complements Sivak’s well, with impeccable timing, earnestness and honesty.
I was also really impressed by the design, which added a lot of dimension to the production. I’m always glad to see simpler set pieces used for multiple purposes. In his “36 Assumptions for Writing Plays,” Jose Rivera encourages playwrights to write “one impossible thing” into their script so that everyone else is forced to rise to the occasion. MEN ON BOATS is an excellent example of how to take a challenge and turn it into an asset. And to top it off, it’s beautifully executed. At moments, I felt like I was looking at the red rocks of Sedona, through a lens just distorted enough that I knew other audience members were experiencing it differently. It’s all in how you look at it, right?
On the whole, a thoughtful, powerful and unpretentious production. Under Davis’ leadership, I truly look forward to seeing what ATC does next.