‘Men on Boats’ at American Theater Company

Toward the end of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s "Hamilton," George Washington imparts a truth that, he raps, he wishes he had known while still young: Once you’re done with whatever it is you do, you have no control over who tells your story. President Barack Obama likely is thinking the very same thing right about now.

That telling "Hamilton" moment, and Obama’s predicament, popped in my head several times on Monday night while watching Will Davis’ skillfully directed and imaginatively staged production of a striking and entertaining play called "Men on Boats" at the American Theater Company — an essential Chicago arts institution that has returned to resilient if impecunious life after a disturbingly fallow fall. The play is penned by Jaclyn Backhaus, resembles "Hamilton" even though it’s far from being a musical or a sold-out sensation, and is the story of Maj. John Wesley Powell. The 100-minute show even is based on the one-armed man’s contemporaneous journals as the soldier, adventurer and explorer, along with various other men in boats under his 1869 command, traversed the Colorado River through what we now call the Grand Canyon.

It is fair to say that Powell could never have imagined his story being told in the way that Backhaus and Davis tell it, which is precisely the point of "Men on Boats," which uses, with clear if unspoken intention, a gender-fluid and otherwise diverse group of performers. Not an adjective applicable to Powell’s actual band of men.

The show is, to a large extent, subversive, a deconstruction of macho adventuring. Powell, of course, did not really discover anything, even if he, and his companion William Dunn, got to stick their names on various natural phenomena, that being one of the quests for immortality common among 19th-century adventurers. Not only had native peoples previously traversed their own birth lands — obviously — but white settlers of various stripes also had gone before Powell and his crew. They merely lacked what Powell brought — official government sanction, and therefore notice, academic gravitas and historical import. By bringing that postmodern sensibility to the explorer narrative, which is not uncommon in the theater, Backhaus pokes fun at these macho guys and their boyish need to traverse and dominate the wilds of North America, pretending to go first where plenty of men and women actually already had gone before. Without being as scared of snakes.

Like all leaders, Powell needed followers, and Backhaus’ self-aware telling — we mostly know the fate of the men before we see it happen — also makes the point that many of the men in Powell’s boats were headed for a fate of alcoholic anonymity and uncertainty, a resolution quite different from the fame and fortune that was in store for the dear leader, who got to attach his moniker to a man-made reservoir.

On the other hand, the play clearly has respect for adventuring as a thing and of the very real dangers faced by these dudes on a raging river of which they had little understanding. Davis’ cast is adept at evoking that crucial sincerity, especially Lawren Carter, who plays Hall, Kelly O’Sullivan, who plays Dunn, and Arti Ishak, whose take on Sumner (et al.) is smart. Kelli Simpkins takes on the lead role of Powell — it’s a generous performance that blends into the ensemble, rather more than did Powell ever did himself, I suspect. But the star of the show is Erin Barlow, whose arch delivery is at once caught up in all the excitement, as her Frank Goodman would surely have been, and dripping with ever-morphing irony at the absurdity of the entire enterprise. As we look back from a changed America about to change more.

In some ways, this Chicago version of a production that previously did well in New York (Davis was working with the same play but a different team) remains a tad tentative for an authorial point of view this bold, although Davis has forged some extraordinary suites of physical business, evoking remarkably well what it means to rush down a raging torrent of water coursing through parched land. He clearly understands that sense of unease was both the reality of the Powell trip and a metaphor for some lives now lived in increasingly hostile territory.

At times, "Men on Boats" gives you goose bumps, it’s so wise and smart. But on opening night at ATC, some of the scenes were more confidently realized, better owned, than others and it took a while for the production to find its voice and for these actors to celebrate their distinctiveness along with their cohesion — there’s the beginnings of a great performance from Lauren Sivak as Old Shady, for example. But it needs more confidence. The tricky part of the script involves maintaining moment-by-moment dramatic tension, which is always an issue with academically fueled plays that need to switch from the micro to the macro — the then to the now — almost on a line-by-line basis. That’s only part way there. Some scenes still need grabbing hard and wrestling to the floor. The emotional life of the show is not yet fully realized. But it’s on its way.

The hugely talented Davis is new to town. He needs a little time to find his way and his collaborators. "Men on Boats," which is well worth seeing, is an exciting new start for a progressive and essential theater company that now needs and deserves support.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

"MEN ON BOATS" – 3 STARS

When: Through Feb. 12

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Tickets: $38 at www.atcweb.org

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