Review: ‘Men on Boats’ a wild and surprising ride at New Village Arts
An actor shouting “Line!” is normally about the last thing you want to hear during a play.
But in “Men on Boats,” it’s not a desperate request for what to say next: It’s a character’s plea for a lifeline that could mean the difference between surviving and dying. (Which for an actor, of course, might be only slightly more dire than getting tripped up in the script.)
The actors in New Village Arts’ production of the wildly original Jaclyn Backhaus work, fortunately, don’t miss a trick, or a line — and while you probably won’t fail to notice there are no actual men in “Men on Boats,” you won’t miss their presence, either.
In fact, while the play pays little mind to such dramatic niceties as character development, it makes its own singular statement simply by reasserting — via a creative retelling of a real-life chapter from history — that adventure, daring and delight in a physical challenge are hardly male-only domains.
There’s so much that’s stylized anyway about this witty, exhilarating and sometimes pretty weird piece — directed by Melissa Coleman-Reed in a muscular production that gives her actors a real workout — that you’ll soon forget the characters the 10 women are playing were originally guys.
“Men on Boats” tells the story of the one-armed ex-soldier John Wesley Powell’s audacious 1869 expedition to explore the lower reaches of the Colorado River, via the gorges of the Grand Canyon.
There’s no river roaring across the NVA stage, but scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s movable, earth-toned panels capture a feel of sheer canyon walls, complemented by Sarah Schwartz’s lighting.
And Melanie Chen Cole’s fantastic sound design blends old-tymey music with haunting electronica to map the shifting emotional tones, while her projections just about douse us in the river’s chill.
Coleman-Reed not only fields an impressively diverse cast (looking rough-and-ready in Elisa Benzoni’s detailed and eye-catching costumes) but also introduces several promising newcomers.
The recent San Diego arrival Nancy Ross seems ideally in tune with the full-speed-ahead vibe of the piece as the headstrong crew member Dunn, while Joy Yvonne Jones is a more reserved but powerful presence as the young Hall.
Newly minted UC San Diego grad Paloma Dominguez is a real find as the ever-upbeat Sumner; she’s particularly adept in the show’s many high-energy movement sequences, as the boats brave rapids and cataracts. (Given how extensive those scenes are, it’s a surprise to find no choreographer is credited.)
Brianna Dodson brings winningly bright notes to the chipper Bradley. And Tamara McMillian and Melba Novoa, whose main characters are the no-nonsense boat mates Seneca and OG (respectively), have the flat-out funniest moment, in secondary roles as two ultra-cool leaders of a local tribe who encounter the hapless explorers. (Novoa’s mirrored shades must be so we can’t see her character rolling her eyes.)
Milena (Sellers) Phillips, who had a strong turn in NVA’s “Having Our Say,” last year, is a compelling figure of intrigue here as Powell’s mysterious brother, nicknamed Old Shady. Fellow NVA returnee Samantha Ginn is right in her element as the boisterous cook Hawkins, and Tiffany Tang makes an appealing and gently comic NVA debut as the proper and somewhat befuddled English adventurer Goodman.
The theater’s artistic director, Kristianne Kurner, takes the helm as Powell, and lends fitting notes of self-grandeur to this complex character.
Powell, like Narcissus, winds up having mixed success with water. But as convention-flouting and even self-indulgent as “Men on Boats” might be, somehow the thing really floats.
‘Men on Boats’
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through April 22.
Where: New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., Carlsbad.
Tickets: $33-$36 (discounts available).
Phone: (760) 433-3245
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